Patrick McGranaghan: “I like maps that connect disparate datasets in novel ways”


Patrick McGranaghan is a land surveyor in Denver, Colorado. He started the MapPorn subreddit in May 2011 while living in Taipei, Taiwan. In his free time Patrick is a geographic pilgrim, visiting places like the Mason-Dixon line and all seven corners of Colorado. Patrick also runs the Twitter account @mapporntweet.

Patrick was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: How did your career as a land surveyor come about?

A: I found a job working as a rodman for a surveying crew after doing a stint teaching English to school children in Taiwan. Living in Taiwan was one of the best experiences in my life, but after four years it was time to come back. When I got back I had few connections or prospects, but knew I wanted to do something with maps, so I applied for a surveying job that I found on Craigslist. After several years of learning on the job I was able to move into my dream job of drawing survey maps for a living.

Q: The 10th anniversary of /r/MapPorn is coming up. Tell me what inspired you to start MapPorn, and what goes on behind the scenes.

A: I joined the Reddit community early on because I liked the interface and the up-vote and down-vote style of finding content. When I started /r/MapPorn the ‘subreddit’ communities were still a new idea and there wasn’t one for high-quality maps. I can remember in the years of the 2000s trying to search for good maps and the content was much harder to find. There were a few sites like the David Rumsey Map Collection and Frank Jacobs had a great blog called Strange Maps but other than that there were few sites that collected the kind of maps I was interested in. 

In the years since Reddit and the user-base has transformed. Reddit was originally for desktop users who could look at content on a big screen with a reliable internet connection. Now, for better or worse, the majority of users are on mobile. I think this biases the content in favor of bite-sized consumable maps that look good on a phone or tablet device. Purists sometimes find these ‘meme’ style maps to be irritating, but the demographic trends are inexorable.

Q: Are you a map hoarder? 

A: Yes, map hoarding is definitely a problem for us in the hobby. Any time I’m traveling I can’t resist picking up free brochures or other ephemera with a map. I have boxes in my closet full of such souvenirs and memorabilia. I’m used to moving around and traveling so I probably have a smaller collection than a lot of hobbyists to keep things light. Almost the entirety of my bedroom walls are covered in maps and illustrations. I recently visited a great little map store here in Denver called The Old Map Gallery, and I had to pinch myself and think about my crowded walls to stop myself from buying more maps. Map collecting is sometimes surprisingly affordable and antique maps can be had for less than a night at a nice restaurant. 

Q: What kind of maps would you like to see more of? 

A: I think that there is still a lot of potential in maps with modern data visualization techniques. We have an ocean of data in this age and I think a lot of it is lost in databases, csvs, xml and other data structures. I like maps that connect disparate datasets in novel ways and make new discoveries. In the book “Info We Trust” RJ Andrews has a chapter visualizing the orientation of cathedrals and showing how they are oriented towards the rising sun. This is the kind of insight that new maps can show. The data is already out there, it just takes a clever person to connect the dots.

Q: You’re one of the biggest geo nerds I know. What are some of your geo-related hobbies?

A: Thanks, I’m flattered. In the words of Thomas Pynchon from Mason & Dixon, I would consider myself to be a “Geometrickal Pilgrim”. In 2020 I finished my goal of visiting all seven corners of Colorado. Yes, seven corners if you include the points where other states have their corners on the Colorado line. I also recently made a trip to the Philadelphia area to visit the Delaware “Wedge” and other sites associated with Mason and Dixon. A few years ago I hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. 

I also like to make maps using QGIS and Illustrator. Recently I’ve been exploring different projections. I’ve been especially interested in the Hotine Oblique and the Gnomonic projections and in how they challenge conventional ideas of the flat map. 

Q: When we met at NACIS in Tacoma, you told me you’ve spent a lot of time traveling. How many countries have you been to, and what are some of your future destinations? 

A: Yes, that was a great NACIS convention! Unfortunately we’ve all had to put our travel plans on hold in the last year. I had planned on doing a Round the World trip in 2020 but obviously that fell through. Some of the places I hoped to visit on that trip include a huge map of Korea in Daejeon, a Soviet map store in Latvia, a giant map on a cooling tower of a power plant near Meppen, Germany, the home of Dutch astronomer Willebrord Snell in Leiden, and Roy’s baseline near Heathrow in England. 

As far as countries I’ve been to, I don’t really keep count, but it’s around 30. Here’s to hoping things get back to normal soon. We’ve only got a limited time on this planet and we’re losing years of our lives that we won’t get back. 

Q: Any final words to our GeoHipster readers? 

A: I just want to say I love my GeoHipster calendar, shoutout to Barry Rowlingson for his April Fools’ San Serriffe map.

Rebekah Jones to GeoHipster: “We work at the cross-section of Earth and people”

Rebekah Jones
Rebekah Jones

Rebekah Jones’ unlikely notoriety as a coronavirus whistleblower stemmed from her ground-breaking work as the GIS Manager at the Florida Department of Health, where she led data and surveillance during the global pandemic. Her work became the standard for states nation-wide. In May 2020, when asked to manipulate data in support of a premature plan to reopen the state, Jones refused, was fired, defamed, and became an object of the press for months after she filed her whistleblower complaint against the state.

Jones earned her bachelor’s from Syracuse University in 2011 with dual majors in geography and journalism, then went on to study hurricanes and climate change at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Later, Jones headed to Florida State University to continue her research in hurricanes and climate change. 

After leaving DOH, Jones built her own system to monitor the pandemic, worked on global programs to track cases in east Africa, and launched a nationwide initiative to track cases in schools. In September 2020, Jones was named one of Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 and one of Medium’s 50 experts to trust during a pandemic.

Rebekah was interviewed by Christina Boggs-Chavira, Mike Dolbow, and Atanas Entchev.

Q: What sparked your love for geography? How did you get into GIS?

A: Having lived through blizzards, tornadoes and hurricanes as a kid, I always found weather and hazards interesting. I’d say I fell in love with geography as a discipline at Syracuse, when I took my first global climate change course with Dr. Jane Reed. She helped me make sense of all of the things that had been happening around me my entire life. It felt like finding religion in a way — I finally understood my lived experiences in a scientific way.

Q: You built Florida state’s COVID Dashboard, leading a 20-person team. Then you were fired. You launched your own COVID Dashboard 2.0 (later renamed to Covid Monitor) in one day, which you financed yourself. This is an amazing feat. How did you manage? Did you have help?

A: I don’t know where the 20-person team came from but I was actually the only one who ever touched the dashboard, the data feeds, or any of the data that fed into it. It was me alone for months because I was the only one there who could do it. My backup was stuck in India and then was quarantined for a few weeks, so I didn’t even get to have someone else do the updates until late April. It was extremely stressful and overwhelming. I was exhausted, not unlike a lot of people who had been working all day, every day since the pandemic started. When I refused to use the system to mislead and lie to people, they took the dashboard (and wrecked it) then fired me. After all I had put into the project, they didn’t care. I built my next dashboard, Florida COVID Action, in June, to provide a location that brought in ALL of Florida’s authoritative data into one location, not just what the Department of Health restricted me to while I worked there. I added Department of Corrections data, emergency management data, hospitalization data, long-term care facility data, testing site data — if it was published in an official capacity by the state, I added it. Two months or so later, I co-founded The Covid Monitor with partners from FinMango and Google. That project arose out of a need to provide K-12 case data — a void no one else was filling. We saw the gap and the need, so we tackled it. It’s been an amazing success since then and I couldn’t be more thankful to my partners. 

Rebekah at the Florida DOH
Rebekah at the Florida DOH

Q: Incorporating school district data into the COVID Monitor is one major difference from the official Florida dashboard 1.0. Your COVID Monitor is presently the only national reporting system for school districts. Why is school district data tracing important? Was it difficult to obtain the data?

A:  At first, no one wanted to report school data. We depended on press releases and news articles, reporting from staff inside schools, and investigative reporting by our team. Mississippi stepped forward as the first state to report consistent data about cases in K-12 schools, and their progressive thinking allowed us to pressure other states to do the same. Now, most states report some kind of data about schools, and many districts in states that aren’t currently reporting will release their own district-wide data. Schools are a breeding ground for the virus — as we’ve seen across the United States and especially in the UK, where schools remained open to face-to-face instruction leading to the emergence of the B117 strain. 

Q: When setting up applications for hurricane tracking or for COVID, I probably would be concerned about getting the data right and then secondly but still incredibly important — your application is about to be slammed. What do you do to prepare for all that traffic that is about to click on your map?

A: I was manager of GIS for the entire Florida Department of Health, so thankfully I had access and control over all our dedicated servers, backups, etc. I had to check in with Esri since it’s an online platform to ensure they were ready for the traffic, as well. Crafting the settings for optimization and working on code helped a lot.

Q: Our readers are all about open data and the transparency that it engenders. Some might say that proprietary software can taint analysis results because the code is in a “black box”, whereas free and open source software can lower the barriers to scientific replication. Where do you stand on the debate over tools, if anywhere? Is transparent data more important than the tools used to display it?

A: Reproducibility is a must. I actually published extremely detailed data definitions and processes while I worked at DOH. The software used here was just a tool to display data and provide APIs. The data itself is where the transparency must be absolute. How is it gathered? What are the potential biases in collection and production? What does this data say, and what does it not say? What is not known? Where are the gaps? Transparency is about acknowledging your data’s flaws as well as its strengths. I stand firmly with the “release the code” group. 

Q: Where do you see this project going? You will get another job sooner rather than later. Do you foresee the COVID Monitor folding into your new job, or will you continue to maintain it outside of the job, or something else?

A: We were all hoping that a new administration would take over The Covid Monitor and run this project from the NIH, CDC or Dept. of Education (or some combination thereof). We had hope when Biden announced a national dashboard, but we’ve yet to see schools even mentioned in that plan. It’s really disappointing, but if this administration fails the public again by not providing this data, we’ll continue to do it ourselves until it is no longer needed. 

Q: Recently your mobile phone and PC were seized on a search warrant by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. What was that about? Do you have your devices back?

A:  I hope to have my devices back soon. The raid on my home was nothing more than an attempt by DeSantis to find out who’s been talking to me and to flush out disloyalty within his ranks.

Q: I can speak for myself and say with all honesty, hearing about what has happened to you and what is continuing to unfold and my heart goes out to you. I hope I would have the strength like you did. How did you do it, what gave you the strength?

A:  I don’t know. I have always fought for doing what I thought was right, so it’s really second nature for me to see something wrong and say “no, I will not accept this.” We moved because guns were pointed at my kids in the raid ordered by the Governor, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reporting the information people depend on. I don’t think anyone knows what they’ll do in those moments. We all hope we’d do the right thing — the hard thing — even when guns are pointed at us or our family, but until we’re there, no one really knows. 

Q: You’re a wife and a mother. How does your family handle all this — the recent move to DC and the rest of the craziness?

A: When you’re in your home and armed men storm your house, there’s a loss of security in your mind. Even here in DC, I jump when the doorbell rings. I don’t know if that will ever go away. You feel like there’s no safe place for you anymore. My son is struggling, but so am I, and my husband, in our own, different ways. Moving is always crazy — and feels impossible with a toddler, ha. Not fun, but necessary.

Q: As someone with degrees from Syracuse and LSU, plus significant time living in Florida and now DC, you’ve seen a lot of the country. Forgetting about COVID for a minute, if you could pick a place to live, where would that be and why?

A: Hawaii. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Louisiana, Florida, now DC… I know I love the beach, warmth, sun. I’m committed to mapping indigenous landscapes and protecting cultural sitescapes, and Hawaii would be an amazing opportunity to do so. My roommate at Syracuse is Hawaiian and would tell me about her home. If we’re limiting options to the United States and cost wasn’t an issue, Hawaii, hands down. 

Rebekah with her parents
Rebekah with her parents

Q: Do you consider yourself a GIS person, or a data scientist, or a whistleblower? Or maybe all three?

A:  I’m not a data scientist. I keep emphasizing to folks that I am a geographer — and I was recognized as a geographer in the news for months before the raid. Now I’m back to data scientist, and it’s highly inappropriate. All scientists work with data, that doesn’t make them data scientists. I consider myself a GIS expert, a whistleblower, a geographer. 

Q: You are a GIS celebrity, like it or not. You are the Forbes nerd of the year. How does it feel to be an industry celebrity?

A:  Hahaha. I wish it would help me find a job! I had no idea the Forbes award was in the works, and they didn’t even contact me to tell me I had received it! I found out on Twitter several days after the announcement!

Q: Have you considered running for office?

A: Yes. Our country desperately needs scientists and geographers in office who have a steadfast commitment to doing what is right. 

Q: Picture your average “geohipster”, if such a thing exists. Is that person doing what you would recommend to stay safe during a pandemic? If not, what should they be doing – or stop doing?

A: I would hope anyone with a geographically-focused education would know to do everything in their power to limit their role in spreading this virus. 

Q: If you could make COVID-19 disappear with a snap of your fingers, what would you be doing for fun in your spare time?

A: Hiking, visiting with my sisters and parents, eating out, ha.

Q: What advice do you have for little aspiring geographers and for those of us who are a bit less little?

A: We work at the cross-section of Earth and people. The tension between those two entities can be jarring, and often tests our ideals of what is right and wrong. I asked this question to DOH “leadership” the day they asked me to use my work to lie to people about the safety of reopening, and I think it’s something everyone should ask themselves whenever they’re faced with such a decision. The Hippocratic oath of geography to do no harm:

“If we do this, will more people get sick and die than if we didn’t do it?”

And if that answer is yes, we shouldn’t do it. It’s that simple. It has to be that simple. 

Poll: “Special Days” in 2021 GeoHipster calendar

As this article is being published, our team of judges are looking at the amazing submissions we received for our 2021 calendar. We say this every year, but we think this will be the best one yet!

So while you’re waiting to get a peek at the maps that are chosen, we thought we’d give you another way to build up the anticipation – a crowdsourcing project! So tell us: which “Special days” deserve to be marked in the 2021 GeoHipster calendar? PostGIS Day, obviously, and maybe a few other official holidays. But what else? Help us decide by voting in this fun poll. Suggestions welcome — comment or email to atanas.entchev [at] gmail [dot] com.

Nate Wessel to GeoHipster: “I want to get stuck doing something”

Nate Wessel
Nate Wessel

Nate Wessel is an urban planner and cartographer living in Toronto. He spent much of his life so far in Ohio and enjoys cycling, walking, mapping things, and playing with his cat. Check out his website https://natewessel.com/ for more info.

Nate was interviewed for GeoHipster by Natasha Pirani.

Q: Hi Nate! How did you become the planner, cartographer, and transit nerd of your email signature epithets? Who/what have been some of your influences and inspirations?

A: I grew up in the suburbs of northeast Ohio and for some reason that I still don’t fully understand I always had a built-in antagonism toward cars and suburbia. As a teenager, I got really into cycling (carbon racing bike, shaved legs, etc.) and rode absolutely everywhere as fast as I could. I took transit sometimes too, for no real reason except that it was difficult and no one else I knew used it. There was one transit route a mile from my house; you had to wave down the little bus as it came by once an hour and it would take you into what was left of downtown Canton, where I would walk around sometimes. I guess I’ve always liked exploring neglected public spaces – there are few public spaces in the US that aren’t neglected though; everyone just passes through inside their private isolation chamber. As an outsider to that, I got to see a lot of really terrible and even, I’d say, brutal behaviour from ordinary people inside their cars. It’s astonishing how cars can make their drivers feel so disconnected from the world around them. 

I wanted to get out of the suburbs ASAP and I went to college with a major in urban planning. I ended up in a design school – planning departments seem to be lumped in either with architecture or geography and this one had architecture for a roommate. Some of my first classes focused more on color theory and graphic design than transport planning or housing policy. Eventually they exposed us to ArcMap too, though GIS and design didn’t really come together into cartography for me until after I graduated and started using better, open-source software like QGIS.

Q: To get wordy and mildly transit nerdy…I recently learned the English word vecturist – a collector of transportation tokens. It seems like a relevant occupation in this age of automated transit fare payment/collection. Your interest in its Latin root piqued my curiosity: what are your favourite transit-related (or other) cognate words or etymology facts?

A: What a fun question! One of the Latin words I had the most fun learning is the verb “trahere” (meaning: to pull or drag) which is where we get “tractor”, as in Star Trek’s “tractor beam” which is of course always pulling things. I don’t know why I’d never thought to wonder why they called it that. Thus: tract, distract, protract, subtract, abstract, extract, contract… it’s amazing how many words you can make with a few prefixes, all of them having to do with pulling things metaphorically from, away, for, below, with, etc. 

I’ve also been doing a bit of work lately with a company called Conveyal, which shares the ‘ve’ root of vecturist, and also ‘vehicle’ for that matter. It’s fascinating to find similarities in English words and then explain them with Latin. But once you learn enough Latin, you start to see similarities there that take you back to Proto-Indo-European for an explanation and then before you know it you’re an amateur linguist. 

Q: And what do you think about automated transit fare payment and its implications?

A: I really like it! As you know, the Toronto Transit Commission has finally got their smartcard system working now, more or less. I used to always have to carry a couple tokens in my pocket and then I was always finding tokens later scattered all over the apartment. It’s one less pocket I need to pat before walking out the door.

I really like the data collection they make possible as well – I’m hoping some day to work for the agency that collects that tap-on smart card data. To be able to track individual travel behaviour over months and years like that is an absolute gold mine for anyone who wants to study how and why people use transit. I really hope transit agencies are able to leverage some of that data – but I’m afraid they’re mostly not doing much with it at the moment. 

Q: You make exquisite maps that are both beautiful and useful. Especially for cyclists. Tell me about your work on rethinking urban bike maps.

A: Gosh. Thank you. 

I made a bike map for Cincinnati during my last couple of years living there after getting fed up with a couple of crappy bike maps that kept getting circulated year after year. They were very subjective maps, though without really declaring their subjectivity in any way. Maps with a subjective, biased perspective can be really interesting but they need to clearly put a face on that perspective so the reader can know where they’re coming from and how to relate to them critically. You can’t print maps like that out of a big faceless bureaucracy as though they contain some objective truth.

Anyway, I reacted against those maps and made my own bike map that was explicitly objective and based on verifiable facts like posted speed limits, elevations, and the number of lanes in a street. It was really detailed data and I think the map was able to convey a lot of nuance that people hadn’t been able to see before. I got some funding for the project and printed a bit more than my weight in paper maps. For anyone who hasn’t printed a giant quantity of something they created, I highly recommend it. It’s a really great feeling – totally worth cutting down a tree for it. 

Q: What if everyone were a cyclist? (I obviously borrowed this question from your old blog).

A: So I’ve been working on this new bike-map concept, which I’m applying to Toronto because that’s where I live now. The idea is that there is a bias toward cars in the street network itself and that in order to properly map that network from a cyclist’s perspective, we need to do a lot of extra work just to get around that. Look for example at a typical street map of any city and you will see a clear hierarchy of streets, from highways on down to ‘local’ or ‘side’ streets. The bigger, more prominent streets are longer and straighter. The lesser streets are more indirect and fragmentary. This is a world built for cars. 

Those same big straight roads generally aren’t safe for cyclists because of all the cars and we end up following more indirect, twisting, fragmentary paths in order to avoid them. Those twisting paths aren’t totally improvised though – they keep recurring in predictable sequences as cyclists settle in and find the best alternatives for common trips. Those paths themselves are the bicycle “highways”, even if they aren’t marked as such – and they usually aren’t. My idea is to simulate this path choice behaviour at a regional scale, as though everyone were a cyclist, though riding in current car-centric conditions. This can be used to generate a bike-specific street hierarchy which actually looks totally different from a “normal” map.

Q: You seem like a modern renaissance academic; you completed a PhD last year in urban planning (congratulations!) yet have written that specialization is a curse. I think I can relate to your concurrent desires to “keep moving, and learning, and developing” and “to get stuck doing something”. I’m curious to know more about how you feel about these academically and otherwise – do you see these pulls as contradictory? Complementary? Normal? Necessary?

A: I graduated from undergrad into a really abysmal job market for urban planning. I spent a year freelancing in design stuff and burning through my savings before I met the man who would become my academic advisor, Michael Widener. I mentioned that I was looking for work and he followed up with an offer to supervise me with a modest stipend – enough to keep the lights on for a couple years anyway. So I actually started my master’s program for the money, such as it was. I wanted to stay in academia for a PhD because I really liked the people I met during the master’s and the challenge of learning new things – the people in that department were very different from me – lots of geologists and archeologists doing remote sensing and historical GIS. I was the only person talking about transit among a bunch of people studying arctic ice and Mayan ruins and Martian topography. 

But I guess I found out that a PhD is a somewhat different beast – or maybe my new department was? I still really liked the people I got to work with, but the tasks kept getting more repetitive. Problem statements were followed by statistical analyses were followed by literature reviews were followed by conference presentations were followed by long epistolary editorial processes, and then it all starts again. I was also increasingly surrounded by people doing really similar work, all of whom were great by the way – no complaints, but I think I stopped learning or feeling challenged in that context. I wasn’t encountering new ideas, only different applications of the same ideas. 

So that’s the downside of specialism, that kind of intellectual and spiritual isolation that will creep up on you if you’re not careful. By contrast when I say that I want to get stuck doing something, maybe what I’m getting at is that total freedom of association is also a curse. That superficial exposure to novelty doesn’t teach; you have to really cement yourself to it for a while, like learning a language by immersion. 

I think both specialty and focus; and novelty and excitement have addictive properties and are always pulling hard in their own direction. Specialty gives money and merit and stability, novelty gives growth and vitality. I’ve found it difficult to strike the right balance and even harder to maintain it. 

Q: What is Civic Tech Toronto and what have you learned and unlearned as a regular at the meetups? And what else do you like to do in Toronto?

A: Civic Tech TO is a weekly meetup where people with a range of technology interests get together to work on civic problems. Some people are teaching homeless youth how to code, others are using data to advocate for better transit, I’ve mostly been using it as a way to hold myself accountable to my own bike map project. It’s as much a social activity as anything and I’ve met some really interesting people there. 

If I’m being honest though, one of the things I’ve learned is just how weak Toronto’s civic culture is. Canada has much more of a safety net than the US which I think allows people to get a bit complacent and rely on government for a lot of things that people would be organizing around in the US. There’s an obvious upside to that, but it does make civic engagement very different here – more professionalised, less accessible, and so many things seem to circle back to some big institution. Civic Tech is very much becoming its own civic institution though which I think is great. 

I’m still trying to figure out how to enjoy Toronto – everything is so expensive here. I like to ride bikes and hang out on the beach as much as possible. 

Q: Planner, cartographer, transit nerd…what else are you (becoming)? (A geohipster, perhaps?)

A: I design and sew most of my own clothes and consider myself a half-decent seamstress; I’ve been looking for work lately so there’s been a big push to make some more formal, conservative stuff to eventually wear in a government planning office. I’ve also kept aquariums since I was a kid and I spend a lot of time building ever more elaborate aquatic environs to keep the fish and plants and molluscs happily munching on each other’s chemical byproducts.

Geohipster is an interesting term! It seems like a “hipster” is defined in part by an aesthetic eclecticism, and also (and more importantly?) by irony. I’m definitely an eclectic user of GIS, but I think I’m much too earnest about it to be accused of irony. But isn’t that exactly what a real hipster would say?

Q: Do you have any wisdom or advice to share with readers?

A: Don’t forget to stop and pet the cats.

Hans van der Kwast to GeoHipster: “A change in education is needed to break this vicious circle”

Hans van der Kwast
Hans van der Kwast

Hans van der Kwast is a physical geographer specialized in GIS and remote sensing. From 2007 to 2012, he worked at the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) as a researcher in environmental modelling. In 2009 he defended his PhD at Utrecht University on the integration of remote sensing in soil moisture modeling using the PCRaster Python framework. Since 2012 he works at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. In his teaching and capacity development projects he actively promotes the use of open source software by mid-career professionals from the Global South. He’s a board member of the Dutch QGIS User Group. 

Hans was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Hans, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I work at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. It’s the largest international graduate water education facility in the world and is based in Delft, the Netherlands. Besides education in our MSc programmes we do research and capacity development projects. In my work at IHE I contribute to these by giving GIS, remote sensing, and modelling classes for our MSc students and (tailor-made) trainings for professionals in the water sector. In our capacity development projects I focus on improving data management through spatial data infrastructures (SDI), guidance on data policies, and the development of business models. Advocacy for open data and the use of available open data is also important in my work.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: As a kid I was already interested in computers, programming and desktop publishing, apart from playing adventure games. When I was in primary school I saw my friends running code to play games. Then I bought a book on Basic and learned scripting. I was also interested in the environment and earth surface processes, including fieldwork. Therefore I chose to study physical geography at Utrecht University. In my second year I found out that there was a great combination of all these interests when I was having my first GIS and remote sensing classes in 1998. I had classes from Prof. Peter Burrough who was one of the founding fathers of GIS research and had written the first book ever written on GIS in 1986 (Principles of Geographical Information Systems for Land Resources Assessment). Besides GIS classes with ArcInfo on HP UX Unix terminals, we also used PCRaster, a GIS raster based environmental modelling language, developed by the group of Peter Burrough. Nowadays PCRaster is open source and available as a Python library. Since the start of my PhD in 2003 I’ve been working with Python, PCRaster and GDAL and my interest in open source alternatives for ArcGIS increased.

Q: I know you are a strong advocate of open source software. What is your history with FOSS4G and QGIS specifically?

A: When I started working for the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) in 2007 I was given a lot of freedom to explore open source alternatives for the commercial software. We had a very nice team of young researchers and established a Python user group inside VITO. We shared knowledge, tips and tricks on Python, QGIS, GDAL, PostGIS and PCRaster through a wiki, which I still use. I had some great PhD students on advanced topics related to spatial dynamic modelling in Python. We also started using R for spatial statistics.

In 2012 I started as a lecturer at IHE Delft and was taking over GIS classes from a colleague. At that time they were still using ArcGIS. Given that our MSc participants are mostly from the Global South and often can’t afford expensive licenses, I wanted to change that for my GIS classes. QGIS was the logical alternative, it has all the features my students need for their work in hydrology and water management. In 2013 I started teaching QGIS in most of our MSc programmes and in short courses. In 2015 I had a great opportunity to develop new course materials with Jan Hoogendoorn (Vitens) for several trainings for the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) in Uganda, funded by Vitens Evides International (VEI) and the IHE Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development (DUPC).

At IHE Delft we had also started our OpenCourseWare platform in 2015. After the trainings in Uganda we agreed with the donors and trainers to make the course materials available as OpenCourseWare with a CC BY-NC license. This was an important step enabling many people to learn about QGIS for hydrological applications, even when they were not able to come to IHE Delft for our short courses or MSc modules. The course materials were completed with a YouTube channel with videos of the lectures and exercises. In the years that followed I regularly updated the materials following the QGIS Long Term Release (LTR) versions. Many MSc students at IHE Delft inspired me to improve the course materials and add more instructional videos.

In August 2017 I joined a QGIS user conference and hackfest for the first time. This one was organised by Lene Fischer at Skovskolen Forest and Landscape College of the University of Copenhagen in Nødebo (Denmark). It was very inspiring to meet developers of QGIS and to learn about this open source community. Raymond Nijssen introduced me to different ways to contribute to QGIS. It was also here where I met you for the first time. Together with Tim Sutton we worked on the QGIS certification programme and its platform. Since Nødebo I’m part of this great community and I try to participate in QGIS events and FOSS4G conferences in the Netherlands and abroad.

Q: You’re a QGIS Certified Trainer. How does QGIS Certification work @ IHE Delft?

A: During the short course on QGIS in September 2017, Erik Meerburg (Geo Academie) and I issued the first QGIS certificates. The QGIS certificates are a win-win-win: the participants are happy to receive an official certificate, QGIS receives a €20 donation for each, and IHE Delft is able to contribute to the further development of QGIS. IHE Delft easily accepted the certification for our short courses and tailor-made trainings. However, I had to convince the MSc programme committees to also issue the certificates for our regular students. I succeeded and am happy to work for an organisation that sees the way forward with open source GIS software.

Q: What is the vision for the newly-formed Dutch QGIS user group? 

A: In January 2018 I was happy to host the first Dutch QGIS User Group Meeting at IHE Delft, organised in cooperation with Geo Academie. The tracks in Dutch and English attracted participants from diverse backgrounds. Surprisingly, the Netherlands didn’t have a QGIS User Group. Although we were always under the umbrella of OSGeoNL, we found it important to establish a user group with the aim to bring users together to share knowledge, contribute to the development of QGIS, and stimulate the use of QGIS in the Netherlands. A very practical reason to establish the user group is the organisation of the QGIS Contributors Meeting in March 2020 in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. A visible user group with its own administration makes things easier. On November 20 2019 we formally established the Dutch QGIS User Group, with a board consisting of Raymond Nijssen (president), Erik Meerburg (secretary) and myself (treasurer). 

Q: You and I wrote a book together – QGIS For Hydrological Applications – that just came out in September. What do you want people to know about the book? What other teaching tools do you create for people wanting to learn QGIS?

A: Traditionally the water sector uses a lot of commercial software with expensive licenses for hydrological models and spatial analysis. However, the developments in open source software are going so fast that it is currently a good alternative to expensive proprietary software. Yet for many professionals, open source is still unknown territory. There is also very little attention paid to it in education. Most students who have already come into contact with GIS have worked with ArcGIS from Esri. Universities and colleges spend significant amounts on Esri licenses. Students often receive a free campus license for use during their studies. They are thus locked into commercial software at an early stage, while they are hardly introduced to open source alternatives. As a result, the water sector is dominated by Esri software, while the use of open source alternatives for GIS is minimal. A change in education is needed to break this vicious circle. A course book that demonstrates the use of QGIS for hydrological applications didn’t exist and is essential to educate a new generation of students in water management. It was great to join forces with you and Locate Press to create that book. My royalties from the book go to a fund to help IHE Delft students attend QGIS and FOSS4G events. With this I hope to help create a more diverse open source community.

The book is part of the larger OpenCourseWare business model of my GIS educational materials. There are tutorials and links to videos on my YouTube Channel. These materials are open access, but without support or certificate. Then there is an online course that covers the basics only, but with support and the official QGIS certificate. For participants who can afford or have scholarships we organise a yearly short course in Delft, where I was happy to have you as a guest lecturer in the last two years. Finally, we hope that some of these users of our educational products like what we do and want to pursue an MSc at our institute.

Q: What are your interests outside of GIS? Rumor has it you’re a professional vocalist… Tell us about that!

A: In my free time I love to join choirs who are in need of tenors, which are scarce in the Netherlands. I started singing in the Rotterdam Boys Choir when I was 7 years old. We performed in concert halls in the Netherlands and went on tours abroad. During my studies I joined the Orchestra and Choir of Utrecht University (USKO) and had a great time. When I started traveling more for work I couldn’t attend weekly rehearsals anymore and chose to join project choirs. That offers the flexibility, while I could still continue singing. In 2020 I was happy to perform in the choir (Nederlands Concertkoor) for the popular tv show Maestro, a contest among Dutch celebrities that have to conduct classical music. I also participated in Mahler Symphony 2 and Verdi’s Messa di Requiem in the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Händel’s Messiah in De Doelen in Rotterdam. I’m not really a professional, but in the Netherlands good amateurs are appreciated too.

Q: What is the best/ worst part of travelling to teach? How many countries have you taught in? Favorite?

A: With my work for IHE Delft I can be a week per month abroad if I wish. My niche was West and North Africa (the francophone countries) and some countries in East Africa. I love to travel to Morocco. I’ve been visiting there since my PhD. I learned the Moroccan dialect and organise tours for friends.

Although traveling is often a great opportunity to visit interesting places and meet interesting people, since 2019 I’m more conscious about my travel schedule and want to be responsible for the environmental impact and the sustainable use of public funds that are often used for organising trainings abroad. The most important thing for me is to have a positive impact with the courses, whether it’s abroad or in Delft. 

Q: What are your goals and predictions for 2020?

A: Related to the previous answer, I’m currently coordinating eLearning activities with partners of IHE Delft. I think eLearning is a great opportunity to expose more people to knowledge, while keeping the cost low and reduce the amount of travel. In 2020 I would like to launch a complete online course on QGIS for Hydrological Applications. Meanwhile I would like to develop more advanced course materials that are not covered yet, such as the use of mesh data, link with hydrological and hydraulic models, remote sensing, etc. Maybe another book?

During the QGIS contributors meeting in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March hopefully we’ll be able to add the PCRaster map algebra operators to the processing toolbox, which has been my wish for a long time.

Personally I would like to develop my skills in 2020 further in data analysis with Python, including the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not? 

A: That’s a difficult one. Generally, label engines have difficulties placing a label on me. Some of the geohipster attributes of the poll in 2014 apply to me and some more general hipster attributes apply too (I like craft beers and good coffee). However, the last time I had a beard was in 2001, but it wasn’t a success at border controls. Since then I shave well with my hipster double-edge razor. And I don’t need horn rimmed glasses yet.

Emily Jirles: “Embrace failure, and with time, persistence, and humility you’ll eventually grow gills”

Q: Tell us a little about your background. What kinds of things did you work on before your current role?

A: I wanted to be a diplomat or ambassador, travel the world, so I majored in International Relations with a concentration in Peace and Security (what does that mean? I honestly couldn’t tell you anymore). After graduation I moved to D.C. to work for some government bodies. First I had an Admin Assistant position at the National Institutes of Health where I was in charge of travel bookings and office management. The people were nice, but the job was boring.

Later I secured a job at the State Department as a Special Assistant to the Chief Political Officer at the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy. Essentially, this meant I was a PA and helped coordinate some projects. I loved my coworkers and my boss, and I even got to travel a bit to places like Durham, South Africa and Geneva, Switzerland. But after a year and a half, I had to face the fact that there were no opportunities for advancement at this position and, moreover, I wasn’t interested in continuing down this particular career path. In fact, I had fallen out of love with my ultimate goal of being a diplomat/ambassador/government worker altogether. 

At this time I started looking at other options, one of which was making the transition to software development. I was heavily leaning toward this option when I heard about a junior analyst position at a firm called Spatial Networks, Inc (SNI). I am a big reader, especially of news publications (my devotion to reading The Economist has spawned numerous inside jokes at my expense among my friends and family). The idea of a career as a domain expert where I could read, learn, and write all day appealed to me.

But like many things in life, what sounded ideal in theory turned out to not be as thrilling in practice. Within a year, I ended up submitting a proposal to make the transition to SNI’s Engineering team as a Junior Software Developer.

Q: What is your current role?

A: Mid-level Software Developer.

 

Q: Like many in the geospatial space, including me, you don’t have a geography background. What has it been like to work at a place so closely identified with geography?

A: It’s been infectious — their enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of our clients makes me want to dig deeper into GIS. In a way, it almost seems like an emerging field in that I’m constantly hearing and reading about new ways people are harnessing geography and spatial data to analyze, optimize, and create. Makes you want to get in on the action.

Q: How do you see geography relating to your background?

A: Considering my background was in political science, history, and economics, I was well aware of the tyranny of geography. Working at a GIS company modernized and atomized the idea of geography for me. No longer was it simply a deterministic factor in a country’s historical and economic development. Now it was how the Department of Transportation was tracking the potholes on my street and how Amazon was going to track me as I peruse the aisles at my local Whole Foods.

 

Q: You started at Spatial Networks as an analyst, but you made a career transition to software development. What motivated you to make this change?

A: Everything that I thought I would like about being an analyst was a component of software development: problem solving, the opportunity for lifelong learning, and the chance to create something. So in one sense, the change wasn’t really a change but a redirection of my interests.

At the time I joined Spatial Networks, we were looking to improve our analytical products and, in addition to hiring analysts, that meant ensuring our data was ready for analytical consumption. Tellingly, I was more interested in the conversations and work surrounding this problem than I was in the analysis of said data. Moreover, I really liked and admired the folks on the Engineering and Data teams. They were knowledgeable, fun, and always happy to help. I knew I wanted to work alongside them.

Q: The transition to development can seem intimidating to some. How did you map out your path? Did you have any previous experience? How did you acquire the skills to become a developer?

A: No prior experience, except maybe some online Intro to Coding/Data Science courses that I never finished.

First, I had a few conversations with supervisors about the transition I wanted to make and the technology stack SNI employed to make sure I was studying technologies and languages that would benefit SNI as well as myself. Then it was a matter of doing some research, seeing what was available online as well as looking into coding bootcamps. I ended up selecting a combination of free and paid options. I found free online courses on relational databases (in general) and an intro to computer science and algorithms, but then paid for a subscription to DataQuest (data cleaning, data science basics, Python, and Postgres) as well as attended the online software development bootcamp at Flatiron (Ruby, Rails, JavaScript, React).

 

Q: Were there any factors that helped ease your transition into development? Were there any that hindered it?

A: What was most helpful in my transition was support from my coworkers and SNI. Everyone was really pushing for me to succeed. They were always willing to answer questions and it was always nice when some of them just asked after how I was doing. Then, soon after I officially joined the Engineering team, I was entrusted to take control of a project to update the Data Events editor for our Fulcrum product. It helped me hit the ground running and gave me a hands-on opportunity to get more familiar with our product.

 

Q: What advice would you have for someone who is contemplating a similar career transition?

A: I’m a big fan of plotting and planning, so I would recommend doing research beforehand. Figure out which area you want to work in and then look into the resources available to make sure they fit your goals, profession and finances. Next, make sure you are consistent with your learning. Like anything else, you get better at coding the more you do it, whether that’s on the job or building an app as a side project. Just keep coding.

And if you get stuck on something, don’t give up. I’ve talked to others who have completed bootcamp programs and their observation on who finishes and who drops out is a matter of persistence. Even when the solution to their problem wasn’t immediately clear, and maybe took hours to figure out, those who graduated were those who kept with it. If you feel like you’re drowning when you first start, that’s normal. Embrace failure, and with time, persistence, and humility you’ll eventually grow gills. At least that was my experience.

 

Q: You recently ran your first marathon. (Congratulations!) Please tell us about it. Have you always been interested in athletics? How did you go about training for your race?

A: Thanks. Technically, I won (because I finished), but the marathon put up a good fight. My joints are still recovering.

I’ve always been into athletics, I played volleyball and basketball as long as I can remember, but I was never a runner. In fact, it was well known — by coaches, fellow players, my family — that I was awful at endurance. I needed multiple subs during a basketball game, for example. In fact, the main reason I adopted running last year was to prove younger me (and everyone else) wrong — I could run for a long time without stopping. I just needed to work at it. 

The other reason was that it was cheap. That was very important to me.

To train for the marathon, I joined a training group at a local running store. They gave us a training plan to follow and hosted group runs twice a week. Probably the hardest thing about marathon training, besides all the running, is finding time to do all the running. On my weekend long run I was running for 3+ hours every Saturday morning, in addition to making sure I was running during the week in the morning. But the payoff was worth it — I got a beer and a nice medal at the finish line. 

Next year, I’m going to focus on getting better at the half marathon distance, improving my speed and aerobic base. But the year after that I’m going to focus on the marathon again, this time to break 4 hours (~9:09 min/mi).

 

Q: You also foster dogs. How did you get into that and are you currently fostering any? (Pictures of dogs are completely acceptable and encouraged here.)

A: I had always wanted a dog and fostering looked like a great way to test drive dog ownership, so to speak. Unfortunately, my cat never really got with the program. I’ve since taken a break from fostering, but I may look into fostering again in the future. Maybe some smaller breeds so she doesn’t feel so intimidated.

 

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: The Firecracker Boys (recommendation from a fellow engineer at SNI)

Educated

Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you?

A: That you all were into geography before it was cool.

 

 

Belle Tissott to GeoHipster: Data Science and Teenage Bird Angst

Belle Tissott
Belle Tissott

Belle Tissott is an Assistant Director of Product Development at Digital Earth Australia, where she works to develop new methods to process and analyse satellite imagery in order to map and better understand Australia’s land and water. She is a programmer and mathematician, with a strong drive to do what she can to make a positive impact in the world.

Belle was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You came to spatial from IT, does that mean you have geo-imposter syndrome as well as programmer-imposter syndrome?

A: Yes, yes and a little bit more yes!

One of the things which has been both amazing and confronting working at Geoscience Australia is just how many insanely smart people there are here. And whilst it’s incredible to work with and learn from such talented peers, it is almost impossible not to doubt whether you’re good enough to be a part of this, and (for me) to wonder just when everyone will realise you’re a fraud.

I recently started opening up with peers about my self-doubt, and to my surprise, it didn’t make them think I’m incompetent. They were understanding, supportive and tended to share their own doubts and fears in return. Realising that imposter syndrome is a pretty universal thing certainly hasn’t removed the feelings entirely, but I find it has made them easier to ignore.

Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a hippy. Can you elaborate?

A: My parents moved to a hippy commune near Nimbin in New South Wales in the 70s, and built a beautiful house in the forest. We had limited power, no mains water and an outside toilet. I grew up there as a ‘free range’ kid, playing in the mud, swimming in the creek and adventuring in the forest. It was fantastic, but very different to your average suburban upbringing. I distinctly remember being shocked when I was to start high school and we were expected to wear shoes EVERY day!

Interestingly whilst I feel like a hippy here, I feel pretty conservative when I go home to Nimbin. I think identifying as a hippy comes from what I see as important and noticing how it’s different from the norm. I feel like ‘normal’ society trains people to put a very high value on wealth and reputation, whereas these things are extremely unimportant to me. I just want to be happy, have a positive impact on the world and those around me.

Q: As a hippy, how did you get into IT?

A: Very much by accident.

I dropped out of school after year 10 and went to TAFE (Australian vocational training) and did a Diploma in Apparel Manufacturing. Throughout my studies I struggled with the way the fashion industry treated young girls, and realised by the end of it that I couldn’t comfortably be part of this toxic world. I was lost. My boyfriend at the time was applying to do Bachelor of Information Technology at university the following year, and, very much as a joke, I applied too. It sounded interesting enough, I liked computer games and problem solving, but an IT-based profession wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind, plus I didn’t finish school! To my utter shock I got in and loved the programming side of it. I could lose myself in learning languages and creating something from nothing.

Q: As an “IT gurl”, how did you get into Geoscience Australia (GA)?

A: I had a friend working as a contractor at GA and she was aware of them looking for more developer staff and thought I would be a perfect fit. I didn’t think I had the skills they were after (that good old self-doubt messing with ability to push forward), however she encouraged me to apply anyway. I was offered an initial contract of just 6 weeks working on their metadata catalogue. With only 6 weeks guaranteed and being the primary income earner for my family, I couldn’t leave my existing job, or relocate my family to Canberra, so this made for a very challenging period. I moved to Canberra alone, worked for GA during the day and did my other work over evenings & weekends, and went home to see my partner and kids every 2 weeks for just a couple of days.

All went well and I was offered a 6 month contract continuation, I left my other job and we packed up our life and made the move from sunny, warm, beachy Byron Bay, to freezing cold Canberra. Later in the year a lead dev position became available and I scored that to become a permanent part of the GA family!

Q: As a GA staff member, how did you get to work in Earth observation?

A: Ah, I think this goes back to when I was out of work for a while when my kids were young. I decided I should go back to university so I would be more employable after the time off. I chose a BSc majoring in mathematics and statistics (because I thought studying maths would be fun!). It was, and it wasn’t… I loved the maths, but got a full-time job part way through, so ended up working & studying with two young kids, which is not great for your sanity!

Anyways, how does this relate to EO? So, working at GA I was doing web development, which is what I’d always done. However, some fabulous managers saw that my maths/stats background could be good for scientific development work, so I got the opportunity to learn Python and work within the Digital Earth Australia team creating products from satellite imagery. I realised pretty quickly that this was where I was meant to be. I didn’t even know it was what I was looking for in a job, but I love everything about it now!

Q: You moved to Canberra, the center of bureaucracy, from Byron Bay, the center of… non-bureaucracy. Tell us about the two cities.

A: The two places are so vastly different, but both amazing in their own way. Byron Bay is full of natural beauty. It has the most amazing beaches in the world as well as lush rain forests and crystal clear creeks. Working in Byron I would pop to the beach for a dip during my lunch break over summer — it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave such an idyllic place, particularly for Canberra. Before spending time in Canberra my view of it was dull, grey, and full of boring public servants. We moved for work. It has FAR surpassed my expectations (though maybe not hard given what I thought of it!).

Belle with household animals

Primarily it’s the people I’ve met who have made me feel so happy to live here. My love of science at times made me feel a little out of place in Byron Bay, where conspiracy theories and alternative remedies are so popular. Now, I’m surrounded by kind, passionate, science-loving, fun people. But I miss the beach and lush forests. I miss moisture in general, I struggle with how dry Canberra is, and the sun in summer is like napalm, so I’m failing at growing veggies. But there are going to be ups and downs of all places, I like to stay focused on the ups of where I currently am — amazing, fabulous people!

Q: What you do is data science, so what does data science mean to you?

A: Data science to me is two-fold. It’s the fun in the challenge of finding new and wonderful ways to process, analyse and interpret insane amounts of data to extrapolate meaning and understanding. But it also is a way I feel I can connect my love of tech and programming, with my passion to do something positive for the world.

Q: I hear you like cosplay, what is your ultimate cosplay character?

A: The character I’ve done most is Harley Quinn. I like the happy/crazy combo, and the black/red is always fun to play with. More recently I however, if I were to have time, I would love to make some Twi’lek costumes as I think making the lekku (long fleshy head tail things) would be a fun challenge.

Q: Tell us about your parrot and teenage angst

A: Ooh our parrot was amazing. During a family weekend walk up Black Mountain we came across an injured fledgling crimson rosella. Despite being warned that it would give a solid bite (it was so tiny I thought it’d be ok), I swooped in to save the day. One bleeding finger later we were heading home with a new little baby. After a check from a vet we were told that it had a poorly healed broken wing and that it would likely never be able to fly so “I can put it down, or you now have a pet bird” — the kids were there, so we now had a pet bird (Pippin).

Surprisingly, the cat was fantastic about it and would lay there while Pip groomed him. At first all was fabulous, and he (I think) gradually learned to fly a little, from head-to-head. As he grew into a teen however he became a jerk and we were suddenly living in a house tormented by an erratically aggressive, but beautiful, sky rat. Pip’s flying got stronger and stronger. Amazingly, at the same time we began to get visits from a rosella family who would sit on our deck and chat to him through the window. One day we opened the door to take washing out and he swooped out to join the family. They all flew off together. It was beautiful to see. We would occasionally see them all at the local park, all very close to each other and him being watched over by the adults in the group.

Q: I found this fantastic picture of you and your kids in Nepal, how was that journey with young kids?

Nepalese mountains

A: It was absolutely amazing for a number of reasons, with the story behind why and how we organised this trip being just as big a part as the incredible adventures we had.

This was a bit of a mental health trip for me. I was unexpectedly made redundant and really struggled to deal with the emotions around it all. I felt rejected and like a failure. I didn’t know how to find the confidence to step back out and look for more work. I just wanted to run away and take some time to process my feelings without the stressors of normal life. The support from my family was what got me through.

Me: “I think I need to walk into the mountains in Nepal”
Matt (my partner): books tickets for the end of the week.

I have a soft spot for Nepal, the people are so friendly and the mountains are breathtaking. This was my second trip there, the first one being 12 years earlier with a 7 month old baby in a backpack. The kids weren’t that young this time (9 & 12), so very capable of walking decent distances. We spent 6 weeks wandering in the mountains and exploring new places together, it was an incredible bonding experience for us as a family and I would definitely recommend it. Also, I came back grounded, calm, at peace with what happened, and confident to get out there and work again.

Interviewer’s note: Belle has booked another trip to Nepal for December 2019 and I take full credit for re-inspiring her!

Q: And lastly, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I don’t know if I am. I don’t drink beer and I’m REALLY bad at growing a beard. The only time I wear a flannel is when I’m staying with my parents and wear my Dad’s. I am however a decent coffee snob. Firstly, instant coffee is NOT real coffee. Coffee which has been reheated time and time again is NOT real coffee. Plunger coffee is rough, but in desperation I could consume. But really, espresso latte with properly heated (not burnt) milk is my go to.  Or, if I’m channeling my inner hippy, a soy dandy latte (I know, not coffee – but fabulous nonetheless).

Johannes Kröger to GeoHipster: “$existing_free_software can do that already.”

Johannes (Hannes) Kröger is a geospatial professional from Hamburg, Germany. During most of this interview, Hannes was working as a research assistant in the Lab for Geoinformatics and Geovisualization (g2lab) at HafenCity University Hamburg. Recently Hannes joined a consulting firm to challenge his expertise in the real world. His unprofessional outlet is a chaotic stream of things at https://twitter.com/cartocalypse.

Hannes was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Hannes Kröger, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, still live here and love this green city near the river. For more than 4 years I have been working as a research assistant (and pretend-PhD-student) in the Lab for Geoinformatics and Geovisualization at the small HafenCity Universität Hamburg. Most of my time was spent on teaching (mostly programming-related) but every now and then there were exciting projects to dive into. I introduced Python as go-to programming language in the study program and am damn proud and happy about that!

Q: How did you get into Geo/GIS?

A: I grew up in a family of sailors, so from an early age on nautical charts and maps were a common sight. Globes also always fascinated me. Later I became the designated navigator when sailing with friends, which involved lots of button pressing on our trusty Garmin GPS 12 unit. That device enabled a friend and me to go geocaching back when it was still a very special thing (there was just a low two digit number of caches in the whole metro area of Hamburg, iirc). Later I discovered OpenStreetMap and enjoyed mapping parts of my city, when not even the main roads were fully connected yet. It felt special, important, and so motivating: there was a map visibly growing in coverage day after day. That was awesome!

After school, when I was lost and wondering what to do, a friend suggested that her study program, Geomatics, would be something fitting my interests. I enrolled and felt at home quickly. I remember professors laughing at my enthusiasm for OSM, that inferior, easily manipulated, non-official data source. Ha, who’s laughing now! And luckily, struggling to get ArcGIS to run on Linux with Wine (I use Arch Linux btw), I discovered QGIS, completed my homework map in it, got asked by a colleague how I made it look so good and shortly after I never touched ArcGIS again. No regrets!

Q: Your enthusiasm for all things geo is evident to anyone who follows you on Twitter! Can you give us some examples of some exciting projects you are involved with and what softwares are involved?

A: Twitter is kind of my exhaust pipe for every-day experiments. I tend to lose interest after the proof-of-concept state, and I am not into marketing mundane things. So many prototypes never see a deserved polishing.

As most of my university job was filled by teaching and related duties, I usually did the exciting stuff in my free time. I find benchmarking different GeoTIFF compression and predictor settings with GDAL exciting in case you were wondering. And I will never get bored with silly geometric things in QGIS: Fake Chromatic Aberration and Dynamic Label Shadows in QGIS | Making a Star Wars Hologram in QGIS | making Flowers in QGIS,

or Dynamic elevation profile lines (“Joy Division” maps).

Doing Average Earth From Space from satellite data was lots of fun. The tools involved were wget, ffmpeg, imagemagick, gdal, lots of Bash scripting with various unixy tools and a bit of Python.

And while I also like to just play around with newly released software, I am hipster enough to usually groan and think “wait, $existing_free_software can do that already if you just learned it, you clueless developer with your NIH syndrome”.

Q: It is amazing what you can do by combining geometry generators, blending modes, live layer effects, functions/variables, and data defined overrides in QGIS! Do you ever find a way to sneak these techniques into the classroom?

A: It is so much fun! Being able to manipulate and animate geodata through those means enables me to feel like the little procedural cARTographist I wish I was. Some of my very first (BASIC) programs were explorations of geometric concepts we had just learned about in school and my fascination for that never ceased.

That one GIS course I was co-teaching was fairly basic and focuses on GIS itself but since my colleague and I were (and are!) passionate about cartography, we also showed things like QGIS draw effects and blending modes to the students. And let me tell you, everybody loves drop shadows!

Q: What’s your take on the Shapefile?

A: It is simple and it came early. Thus it’s widely supported, but also really dumb and antiquated. Seriously, it is. I wish its proponents would consider the benefits of a single-file format that supports metadata and more. Have they never gotten just “data.shp” in a mail?

By the way, did you know that @shapefiIe is actually using an upper-case “i” for the “l” bit because the true handle was taken already? What a deceitful fraud! @GeoPackage1 on the other hand, now that is one classy, prophetic name!

Q: What do you do for fun outside when you’re not teaching or playing with visualizations?

A: I write this answer from the Scottish highlands where I ended up spontaneously for a hike along Loch Lochy (huehuehue!) and Loch Ness. A considerable part of that is battling rural public transport and the unpredictable weather. I love the outdoors. Probably the sailing navigator’s cartography genes. Anyone got a boat for me?

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

A: You people always want to label people like me, pffft. Well actually, I strictly limit myself to home-grown, sustainable FLOSS GIS software; I have strong opinions about data compression; I think Mapbox is pretty evil; I like neither Vinyl nor Shapefiles; I thought a lot about using semicolon here; and I use Arch Linux. I am ambivalent on the question and I know I’m right about that. So, yeah, I wish I wasn’t which just makes me one even more so.

Q: Any words of wisdom for our readers?

A: File bug reports if you want your tools to improve.

When you file a bug with a free and open-source project, take a moment to browse through open issues. Maybe you can give some input, maybe you can help a person who looked for tech support.

And always consider the humans behind the code, they are what makes it tick, and you should appreciate their generosity no matter what just happened to your project’s files. Backup is cheap.

 

Terry Stigers: “When done correctly, maps are truly beautiful.”

My favorite picture of myself and my son. I’m the old, scruffy one.

“I was born, which came as a bit of a shock but I rallied quickly. I survived childhood, which is hardly surprising considering the time period during which this occurred. I also survived adolescence, which surprised the hell out of everyone who knew me back then. I attended college twice – once when I was too young to properly appreciate it, and once when I was old enough to know better. I have two degrees, neither of which gets much use these days. I have had a plethora of jobs but really only one career. Truth is I’m interested in pretty much everything, which doesn’t really pay very well. I am married to a long-suffering, saint of a woman who honestly deserves much better. We have the perfect child. In my life all things map related take the form of a hobby, albeit a surprisingly persistent one. I have only gotten paid to be a Map Dork once (twice if you count the time a local brewery gave me a case of beer for a map showing where their beer could be found). I haven’t yet died.”

Terry was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: Please tell us about your background. How did you end up working with GIS?
I am an archaeologist by training and education. While still in college, I took a class called ‘Computer Mapping’, which had the lot of us create a road atlas using MapInfo 5.0. I immediately saw the usefulness of GIS applied to archaeology, so over the course of the following Summer I contacted ESRI and secured myself a copy of ArcView 3.2 (back then ESRI gave students substantial discounts). The rest is archaeology (with a little bit of history and GIS thrown in).

Q: What do you think has been the most promising recent (within the last three years) development in GIS? What do you think is the most concerning?

To be honest, I don’t have an answer for this one. I’ve been out of the loop for some time now. It’s not that GIS no longer fits into my life (it does), it’s just that I no longer spend any of my time dallying on the bleeding edge. These days, when I play with maps I want tools that just work. Being at the forefront of any tech requires more troubleshooting than I’m willing to engage in at the moment.

Q: What does your typical work day look like and how do you typically use GIS in your work?

I was going to answer this with an apologetic explanation about how I pretty much don’t really use GIS any more. But then yesterday I began work on a banner graphic for my campaign page for my city council run. There is a landmark atop a ridge in our town: Poet’s Seat Tower (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poet%27s_Seat_Tower). I thought a profile view of the ridge and tower would make a nice banner graphic. While normal humans would probably just open up Photoshop and whip up something nice, the Map Dork in me stirred grumpily and insisted I do things differently. So I downloaded some elevation data and used QGIS to convert it into a DEM. I then downloaded a model of the tower from 3D Warehouse (luckily, the model in question was one I did myself years ago, so no recompense or attribution is needed), packed both the DEM and the model into a 3D modelling program (Bryce, in this particular instance), then exported a nice profile view using a distance mask for easy conversion to color. Now I just have to add a little color and I’ll be in business.

Q: Not surprisingly, you have written about your use of historical maps in the past. You have also occasionally written about techniques to produce historical-looking maps with modern GIS tools. What are some of the maps that have influenced you? What about cartographers?

I cannot point directly at any particular maps or cartographers – I love them all. And what I love most about old maps is the ease with which they (usually) can be interpreted. I am referring here to their relative lack of keys/legends. One glance at an old map and you can immediately pick out and identify features. Mountains, forests (many even differentiate between coniferous and deciduous forests), towns, wetlands. Modern maps are not good about this (although some meaningful progress has been made). I think it’s because modern maps are often trying too hard to be too many different things at once. One of the things I love so much about the GeoHipster calendar is that it usually showcases maps that deftly avoid this trap. Maps that instead focus on providing concise, easily interpreted information on a given subject as it applies to a given landscape. When done correctly (as they usually are) these maps are truly beautiful.

Q: Do you have any maps displayed in your home? If so, what are they?

We have three maps on display in our home. One is a stylized isometric map of Manhattan. Another is a subway map of the valley where we live (although this valley does not, in fact, have any subways). Lastly, we have a cloth map of Italy which identifies regions according to the wines and cheeses produced there. Because wine. And cheese.

Q: Despite your public break with social media, your recently joined Facebook. (I will admit that I almost contacted you first to tell you an account had been hacked.) What prompted you to do this now?

Truth is, I’ve been toying with the idea of joining Facebook for some time now. It seems to have an exclusive lock on local news around these parts. Is the town pool open? Did they change the venue for that Human Rights Commision meeting? Is the protest on the town common still being held despite the rain? The answers to these and a host of other hyper-local questions can only be found on Facebook.

What finally made me take the plunge, though, was my decision to run for local office (relax – it’s just the city council). On the local level, running for office is virtually impossible without a Facebook presence.

Q: In what ways do you think the pervasiveness of Facebook benefits local politics and in what ways might it be a detriment?

I think Facebook’s usefulness to local politics lies in communication. Despite all its shortcomings (which are legion), FB is a decent vehicle for interpersonal communication. It allows for community-driven rules, which is an absolute necessity for civil discourse (don’t take my word for it – just look at Twitter if you want to see what happens to communication when there are no rules). As far as I can tell, the major detriment FB poses to local politics lies in participants being haunted by their past. Luckily, this does not (yet) affect me, since I only took the plunge when I decided to enter into the local political scene. So my profile isn’t already full of embarrassing photos of my sordid past.

Q: What prompted you to run for office and what are you hoping to accomplish? How do you think your background in geography informs or affects your campaign or your positions on issues?

There is a portrait of my grandfather (August) that hangs on the wall in our stairwell. August was born in Germany in the year 1900. He had a highly refined sense of duty, so when his native land went to war August was quick to enlist in the navy. He survived The Great War and returned home to Germany, where he married his sweetheart, Mary.

In time the Nazis came to power in Germany, and one day they knocked on August’s door and ‘requested’ that he enlist in their navy. August refused, so the Nazis took him away and threw him in jail on imaginary charges. They released August after a day or so, since what they really wanted was more soldiers for their wartime ambitions. A short time later another knock came at the door, followed by another ‘request’, another refusal, more jailtime.

This routine repeated itself a total of nine times. August was fairly certain he wouldn’t survive a tenth repetition, so he and my grandmother grabbed whatever they could carry and fled for their lives. They made their way to upstate New York, where they quickly settled down to raise a family. Their third and last child was my mother, Ruth.

It turned out the Nazis did indeed return for August a tenth time. In his absence they instead arrested his brother, Karl, either by mistake or out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Karl died in a concentration camp.

When the United States entered into World War II, August immediately enlisted in the American navy. He was an intensely patriotic man and when his adopted country needed him he did not question or hesitate. When the United States later became embroiled in a conflict in Korea, August volunteered yet again. My grandfather believed in obligation and duty and he was fiercely loyal to the country that took him in when his native land betrayed him.

I walk by that portrait of my grandfather repeatedly every day. I usually smile and/or nod a greeting, grateful for the level of comfort my family enjoys thanks to the sacrifices August’s generation made on our behalf. Lately, though, passing by my grandfather’s portrait has become a rather more thoughtful process. I am fully cognizant of the current state of our nation and the world and I am, of course, concerned. I do not fear overmuch for my immediate family – we are middle-class white people deep in the heart of Liberal America – but I am nonetheless concerned. It’s not that we have nothing to fear – we just have less to fear than pretty much every other demographic in America. Which makes me think about personal duty and whether my privilege obligates me to do more than I have been.

Nowadays, encountering my grandfather’s portrait gives me pause. I watch the news and I see what’s going on and when I walk by August’s portrait I hear his voice ask: “So what are you doing about it?”

Frankly, I don’t have a satisfactory answer. For most of my life I have felt that voting constituted a sufficient level of personal participation in our participatory democracy. But a one-word answer no longer seems adequate when responding to my grandfather’s spirit. And trying to convince myself that participation in social media constitutes a meaningful contribution falls well short.

And so I find myself feeling honorbound to roll up my sleeves and wade into the rising waters of America’s current mess and do my part for the cleanup detail. And the best and most immediate way I can think to do this is to get involved in local politics.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Hang around with my kid.

Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you and do you consider yourself one? Feel free to respond with all of the irony you can muster.

To me, ‘geohipster’ describes a person who has a deep-seated love of GIS, but mainly just wants to use it to locate the nearest cup of pumpkin spice latte. Oftimes bearded – and always partial to flannel – geohipsters are the standard bearers for modern GIS. Let’s be honest here – the overwhelming majority of the population only use GIS as a tool to find their way to food, coffee, and beer (not necessarily in that order). Geohipsters are especially well suited to provide just such services.

I myself am not a geohipster. In fact, I am instead a geohippy. The two are very similar, except geohippies wear tie dye instead of flannel, our facial hair is considerably less well-groomed, and we tend to replace coffee with other – stronger – mind-altering substances. Also, there was a promise of free sex, but that one has yet to materialize and frankly I’m getting a little pissed off about it. 

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 Calendar: Aly Ollivierre

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I work full-time as a Cartographer at National Geographic Maps, part-time conducting freelance work as Tombolo Maps & Design, and part-time working with the conservation NGO BirdsCaribbean. I’m rounding up on 10 years of experience at the end of 2019 and am passionate about beautiful maps, participatory mapping, bird conservation, addressing climate change, and working in small island developing states. I recently published a co-authored book entitled Birds of the Transboundary Grenadines, which is part bird guide, part atlas, part photo-book-pretty-enough-for-your-coffee-table, and part historical and sociological dive into the connection between birds and the people of the Grenadines. This was the culmination of 7 years of collaboration with my incredible co-author, Juliana Coffey, and the local communities in these tiny islands which are split between the Eastern Caribbean countries of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada (where I’ve lived on and off since 2011). Morale of the story: I have a lot of overlapping passions, which is how I ended up deciding to study geography anyway. (Did I mention I also make map jewelry?)

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: As a history minor, some of my favorite courses in undergrad at Middlebury College were on historical geography (taught by the exceptionally inspiring Dr. Anne Kelly Knowles). I profoundly appreciated how historical geography could be used to understand how and why things happened and decisions were made (flashback to Historical Geography of North America and reading topographic maps which visualized how Civil War battles were lost or won). 

Today, like any normal person with a map obsession, I spend my fair share of time keeping an eye on David Rumsey’s Map Collection and, during one of my stints living in Maine, I found this historic map of Portland from 1851:

I was surprised to see how dramatically the coastline had been changed in the past century and a half, and—as most cartographers are inclined to do—I immediately wanted to map it and show the amount of land reclamation on the peninsula, particularly in Back Cove. It is also really cool to see how the downtown buildings changed from small houses and businesses to city block-sized multi-purpose buildings made up of storefronts, office space, and apartments.

While it took me a while to make the time to fit this just-for-fun map into my crazy schedule, I’m glad I finally made it happen!

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

A: This map was made by combining the 1851 Map of the City of Portland, Maine (from original surveys by Henry F. Walling, Civil Engineer) with current data for Portland in ArcGIS and Adobe Illustrator with Avenza MAPublisher. I started by georeferencing the historic map with contemporary data in ArcGIS and then I completed the cartographic design work in Illustrator. To break that down further, I spent a considerable amount of time in Photoshop cleaning up the historic map (removing the sketches and labels and adjusting the different shades in which it had faded) so that I could have a clean and not overly distracting background on top of which I could add current data and my own labels. I also digitized the coastline from the historic map to make sure it stood out and went through quite a few design iterations before choosing one whose color scheme was historical with a modern pop, and still allowed for full visibility of all of the historic and modern data.