Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Owen Powell, August

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I am a GIS Consultant working for Arup in the UK, with a specialism in data engineering and 3D visualisation. I think I have an unusual background for someone in GIS, having studied Fine Art, and later 3D Modelling & Animation. I have a passion for art and design, and studied painting, photography, and architecture which I still love. 

I got into GIS by accident but found it fascinating, especially being able to join data together with spatial relationships. I learned Maya & Blender (thanks to Nick George if you’re out there!) before ever knowing GIS was a thing. 

I am one of the people responsible for the popularity of Blender in cartography in recent years, having developed and shared new workflows and techniques. 

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: I am slightly obsessed with Japan, and Japanese culture – it is so unique. I made this map of Hachijō-jima Island for no real reason other than to create something new and different, plus I love making maps of islands. In my work I try to do something different each time, and consider it a failure if I just repeat a style I’ve done before, or in the style of someone else. 

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

A: I had some help from @kenjirototsuji with finding the data, and navigating the complexities of Japanese GML schemas from the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.

The basis of the map was made with FME, in creating a surface as well as textures such as the coastal vignette. I love that FME gives you complete control and works with practically any format of data. FME is vital in my work, effectively extending the possibilities in Blender beyond the standard VFX and games industry data formats. 

The map is an orthographic render of a 3D model, made from triangulating contours and extruding 2d features (GML > FBX using FME). This is something I find myself doing more and more, because the resolution of elevation data rarely fits well with the available topographic data. If you create your own DEM raster or surface then there are opportunities to fill voids or smooth areas to match your intended map scale. 

With this map I used Blender’s node-based shader editor where you can mix map layers as textures to affect the way it reacts to light, for example with the roads, water, and the coastal vignette.

Anton Thomas: “Creative inspiration is not field-specific, everything in life flows together to inspire what you do”

Anton Thomas is an artist-cartographer from New Zealand, based in Australia. He creates hand-drawn illustrated maps with colour pencil and pen. His focus is primarily on large works which showcase the world in heavy detail and vivid colour. His works include North America: Portrait of a Continent, a map that took almost five years to complete.

Anton was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: How did your journey as a cartographer begin? 

A: I was obsessed with maps as a young child. Growing up in small-town New Zealand, my surroundings were awe-inspiring. The geography of the South Island is magnificent, and maps helped me understand it. Exploring them evoked mystery and adventure. While I did like fantasy fiction, I found the real world to be far more captivating. And New Zealand has the geography for it: one looks across the ocean to snow-capped volcanoes, while the Pacific crashes into primeval coastline. It was a vivid place to grow up.

NZ is also very isolated, so perusing atlases and globes was a way to explore distant lands. I would stay up at night drawing maps, committing coastlines to memory. I also loved drawing animals, landscapes, cities, dinosaurs – whatever interested me – and I combined these with maps from the start.

This passion was somewhat neglected through my teens, but came roaring back when I began travelling in 2011. After a childhood in NZ, I was amazed at the vastness of continental geography. I spent two years criss-crossing North America, and my love of maps was reignited. I began to draw them more than ever, culminating in my Portrait of a Continent project (discussed in Question 3).

Q: You’re working on a map called Wild World. Can you tell me more about it?

A: I started Wild World last year, in the middle of a long lockdown in Melbourne. After years drawing a map of North America, I was desperate for something different. I wished to focus only on the natural world, instead of the countless skylines and cultural features of my previous works.

So, it is a world map about nature. The map is in the lovely Natural Earth projection, centred on 11°E rather than Greenwich (I prefer the edges to cut through the Bering Strait, unlike 0°). After sizing it, I printed off the base map and stapled it to the back of my art paper. Then using a lightbox, I traced all coastlines, rivers, and relief and began drawing.

I’ve dreamed of this map since childhood. At age 15 I drew a world map in which the coastlines are shaped by animals of each region. More recently, after seeing Tom Patterson’s stunning physical world maps, I envisioned an animal map showcasing physical geography in detail. Painstaking attention is given to geography and labelling, as I hope it can be a great reference map for world geography. Meanwhile, animals are amazing at evoking place (think tiger in India, kangaroo in Australia), and evoking place is a key goal of my work. There have been many animal pictorial maps through the ages, but they often have a cartoonish character. The illustrations can feel separate from the map, stamped on top like clipart. There are some great maps in this style, but I like to bake my illustrations into the geography, so everything flows together. I want my baboon wandering the mountains, not pasted over the top.

I include no extinct, introduced, or domesticated animals. Only native extant fauna (also no cryptids. Sorry, sasquatch enthusiasts). So Wild World does present Earth in an idealised fashion – although civilization’s footprint can still be seen (e.g. the current extent of the Amazon or the Aral Sea). By showcasing the majesty of Earth’s natural heritage, I hope it can inspire people to consider its importance – and its profound fragility.

Finally, I needed to move on from the North America project. After years on that one map, I’m putting all I learned into something new. Experimenting with new ideas, and (hopefully) proving not everything I draw takes years! I hope to finish and release prints in late 2021. You can sign up to be notified at www.antonthomasart.com/wild-world 

Q: It’s wild how you spent 5 years working on your map North America: Portrait of a Continent. How did that project come about? Did you ever think about giving up in those 5 years? 

A: In 2012, while living in Montréal, I drew a map of North America on a refrigerator. The fridge was old and covered in rust stains, so my housemate painted it white. Looking at the bright new surface, he asked me to draw something to liven it up.

At this point I’d been backpacking the continent for two years, working as a cook, a labourer, turfing lawns, busking… whatever kept me moving. I had grown obsessed with the geography I saw. Visions of a grand map consumed me, one that would showcase that vastness – filled with skylines, landscapes, and animals. So, in a creative frenzy, I used the fridge to test this idea.

Fast-forward to 2014, and I was living in Melbourne, Australia. After the fridge I’d drawn a large map called South Asia & Australasia, this time with colour pencils (on paper, not a fridge). This gave me the experience required to draw North America properly. I thought it might take six months, but as the map progressed so did my skills. The detail became increasingly refined. The research became more in-depth. It was all done in my spare time (nights, weekends), as I maintained a day-job to pay the bills. It was an astounding amount of work, compounded by constant re-drawing due to my technical improvement. In the end, I completed the map in early 2019: almost five years later!

The odyssey hijacked my life but giving up never crossed my mind. I loved drawing it; the map offered me meaning and direction at a difficult time. Midway through the project I attended the NACIS conference in Colorado Springs (2016), meeting a wonderful cartography community for the first time. The map was well-received, and this was a crucial boost. What I learned at NACIS was revelatory, while the response to my map hardened my resolve to finish it.

Q: Can you walk me through the process of drawing each geographical area, especially for areas that you have never physically visited or seen?

A: Everything starts with research. When I get to a new region, I read all I can about it. I do so in stages, starting with physical geography. I must get a sense of where the mountains, plains, forests, deserts, and rivers are. I open new tabs on anything intriguing and follow the breadcrumbs.

Then, I move past physical geography. In the case of North America, there was a huge layer of cultural research. Where are the cities? What are the iconic landmarks? I read about the history, economy, sports, arts, flora, fauna and more. I am always searching for that which would be familiar to a local.

In the case of Wild World, I bypass much of this stage and go straight to animals. What are the apex predators? What are the most famous animals in the region? Animals are often used in regional iconography (e.g., New Zealand’s kiwi), what are these? I look across the animal kingdom – mammals, birds, reptiles, fish etc. I check national parks and nature reserves, as they preserve wildlife populations and have plenty of information available.

This is all done online, and everything I draw is cross-referenced. You cannot count on Wikipedia for everything. If it is suggested that the national bird of Angola is the red-crested turaco, I need more than just a sentence without citation. I look out for local sources, hashtags on Instagram that may be leads, even checking Angolan government and tourism websites.

While researching, I mark off ideas in pencil on the map. I pin important locations on Google Earth, such as mountain peaks or national parks. Once I’ve learned enough, I can see the artwork in my mind. I ink in the labels, grab my pencil, and begin sketching.

Q: Is there an artist, philosopher, or cartographer that you get inspiration from?

A: Heinrich Berann’s painted panoramas are legendary. His map of Yellowstone had a big impact on me. The way in which it is both landscape art and a map, without concern for fitting into either category, is wonderful. I think these categories can be confusing anyway – most cartographers are visual artists too. Berann’s work feels unbothered by such distinctions, and his maps are magnificent.

Many in other fields have been inspirations on my maps. Ernest Hemingway, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, and Ibrahim Gonzales (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) come to mind. Jack Kerouac’s descriptions of American geography were very influential. Creative inspiration is not field-specific, everything in life flows together to inspire what you do.

Q: You made a world map with dried peas at NACIS Tacoma. Aside from that, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve used to make a map?

A: Ah, that was fun! Well, I made a map of New Zealand by cutting up a pair of jandals (“flip flops” as they’re known in the States), a map of Australia with vegemite smeared on toast, and a cat fur world map after a friend groomed their fluffy cat (the only map that ever made me sneeze).

Most recently, while on holiday in Tasmania, I drew a map of Tas in the sand every time I was on a beach. Early on, the map wasn’t great due to my unfamiliarity with the island. But as my trip progressed, the maps improved as I filled in my knowledge. I drew them on beaches in the north, south, east and west – even on sandy riverbanks in the interior.

Q: I really enjoyed your jamming sessions at the NACIS virtual event. What kind of music do you like to play? Do you listen to music when you’re drawing? 

A: It was so fun to play some music with my fellow cartographer/musicians at NACIS! Hopefully it’ll be in person one day. I play guitar and sing, predominantly blues and soul. I listen to a lot of music while drawing, and often like to explore music from the region I’m mapping. This method helps you to feel immersed in the place at hand – especially important when you can’t travel there. Music is a most powerful expression and reflection of place. Ask yourself, what does a place sound like? With this, you begin to approach the beating heart of a region, a culture, a spiritual channel that transcends language.

Plus, music mapping is a great way to discover new music! Music that you may never come across otherwise.

Q: What’s your life philosophy, and what advice do you give to our GeoHipster readers?

A: I feel at my core I try to remember life – and this planet in which it unfolds – is filled with wonder and adventure. It’s more vast, beautiful and terrifying than any fantasy world in fiction. Certainly, in ways it is also a tragedy, and that is a burden and a puzzle. But our mere presence itself is extraordinary, and an appreciation for the vastness of the Earth helps one to consider that broader picture. To move beyond yourself. It’s why I hike, it’s why I explore music, it’s why I love maps. I don’t want to ever forget how amazing this life is, no matter how precarious things can seem.

As for maps, I would just say… try to make maps that interest you. Follow the path that your curiosity urges. If you’re having fun with it, it will be easier to remain passionate and work hard, thus acquiring the requisite hours to get better and better.

Q: What does being a geohipster mean to you?

A: In all honesty I’m not quite sure, except to say I think I was a geohipster “before it was cool” (as any good hipster activity should be)? Referring to my Montréal fridge days, circa 2012 I was a 22-year-old bike-riding line cook trying to speak French (badly), who would return to my houseplant-filled apartment in La Petite-Italie to drink Québécois beer and draw a map on my refrigerator. Hopefully I acquired enduring geohipster creds from this!

Q: Where can we purchase your beautiful maps? 

A: Prints of my maps are available at www.antonthomasart.com – shipping worldwide. The North America map is currently available, and Wild World prints should be ready later in 2021. You can subscribe to be notified when it’s available at: www.antonthomasart.com/wild-world 

Jorge Sanz: “I like to have an eye on what is out of the mainstream industry trends”

Jorge Sanz is a geospatial technologist from Valencia, Spain. He studied Surveying, Cartography, and Geodesy engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia. For 15 years, Jorge has been working on consultancy, sales engineering, support, and development of Geographical Information Systems with a high focus on Open Source Software and Open Data. He has been a long-term contributor to the OSGeo Foundation and other initiatives globally and locally.

Jorge was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: You advertise yourself as a cartographer In flip flops. What does that mean to you?

A: Yeah, I use that in my Twitter bio, haha. Saying that I’m in flip-flops, I mean I’m easygoing, I don’t take myself too seriously on that social network, and above anything else, I stay positive by all means. My whole career has been around bringing the geospatial dimension to all kinds of projects and products, so I’m probably far away from what ordinary people consider a cartographer does. Still, I think it is a nice way to describe myself.

Q: How did you become a cartographer?

A: Maps have always fascinated me way before computers. Exploring the world from my bedroom, staring at an old atlas for hours, and then reading novels and comics was a big pastime in my childhood. Then computers came; I was lucky to be exposed to the BASIC programming language when I was 13 years old or so, proving to be very useful later at university. Anyway, since I loved geography, maths, and technical drawing, joining the Surveying Engineering school felt natural and easy. At university afterward, I realized that the typical Civil Engineering path for surveyors was not for me. I was interested in pursuing more advanced topics like GPS networks, geophysics, cartography production, GIS, etc. I majored in Geodesy, but I ended up finishing my formal studies doing a GIS project that definitely drove me to geospatial development, web-mapping, and Open Source software.

Q: Can you talk to me about your involvement with open source? And how did it shape your career?

A: The thesis project to get my degree was a GIS developed with Visual Basic 6 and ArcObjects 8, creating a desktop application to explore and manage a regional irrigation infrastructure. Even though I loved the result, it was 2004, and it seemed evident to me that the future of information management was not in desktop applications but on the web. I spent a few more weeks exploring options to publish all this data differently. At that moment, I was already playing with Linux, GRASS, and other Open Source components, so I quickly got into some straightforward PHP programming and UMN MapServer.

OK, so I arrived at Open Source as a user and very noob developer. After I got my degree, I stayed at the university on a research grant, with the idea of starting a Ph.D. and hopefully an academic career. On the other hand, I was already participating in GIS mailing lists in Spanish for a few years and, more recently, in the MapServer users group. At some point, there was some sort of extensive discussion there about Autodesk willing to rebrand their MapGuide product with the MapServer name. After many emails, I learned a new foundation was created to serve as an umbrella for MapServer and other Open Source projects.

Those were very active years for Open Source and Geo. The new OSGeo Foundation was a breath of collaboration and the perfect space for developers and users looking for like-minded folks in a world dominated by proprietary products. A group of Spanish-speaking users gathered. We started to translate the OSGeo website, discuss our own mailing lists, and eventually got our own conference here in Spain, called SIG Libre organized by the Girona University Geography and Remote Sensing department (SIGTE).

It also meant the time I left the academic path and joined Prodevelop, a small consultancy company in Valencia looking for someone with cartography and technical skills. I joined to help to develop an ArcIMS plugin for gvSIG, an Open Source desktop GIS that the Valencian Government started as part of a broader migration to Open Source. The company itself was also shifting to Open Source for their own projects. I worked with them for over ten years, and I was lucky to participate in many other projects using many different products: Deegree, GeoNetwork, GeoServer, Open Layers, etc. In fact, my first contribution to the SIG Libre conference was an article written together with Miguel Montesinos, Prodevelop’s CTO, to review and explore the Open Source GIS ecosystem. It was a great way to dive into and learn about the many different initiatives already available back then!

After Prodevelop, I moved to CARTO, where I worked for four years as a Solutions Engineer first, later also managing the Support Team. It was fantastic to join the company and be part of a team that develops an Open Source product, helping clients understand and use it for their own products.

Q: What kind of cool things are you building at Elastic?

A: Elastic has an extensive portfolio of products where Geo has had a small presence for many years. The first time I used Elasticsearch on an actual project was around 2013. I was amazed by how easy and powerful the product was to store and search large geodata with a developer-friendly interface.

I work at the Kibana team in Elastic. Kibana is a web frontend to manage and explore data in Elasticsearch and a platform for vertical solutions for the Security, Search, and Observability industries. Almost all those verticals in some way can leverage the geospatial dimension. I work at the team that develops the Maps application and the Elastic Maps Service. The Maps application allows users to visualize and explore Elasticsearch geodata and then put it together with other visualization types like bar charts, gauges, histograms, etc. But the cool thing is that Elastic Maps is also a component for the rest of the solutions. You can see a map in the Machine Learning classification app if you are working with country ISO codes. You can explore your Internet network connections on a map, thanks to the geolocation of IP addresses. You can understand differences in how well your application performs in different parts of the world or identify clusters of sources of cyberattacks on your IT infrastructure. The use cases are endless, and I’m always excited to learn that a new team at Elastic is adding the Maps component to their app.

My main focus is on the Elastic Maps Service, where the Kibana and Infrastructure teams work together to provide a reliable set of geospatial services for our platform. We serve our own basemap and data boundaries, created from OpenStreetMap, Wikidata, and NaturalEarth databases, contributing actively to the OpenMapTiles project as our upstream technology stack.

Elastic is broadly used in air-gapped environments. One of the recently developed projects is a self-hosted version of our services, helping our clients deploy their own maps server. This way, their users can experience Kibana in the exact same way any other clients do.

Oh, by the way, Jenny Allen, current Kibana Maps team lead, was also interviewed at Geohipster when she was working at HERE 🙂.

Q: Aside from being active in the foss4g community, you’re involved with Geoinquietos in Spain. Tell me more about that, and what’s something unique about Geoinquietos?

A: Geoinquietos is a natural evolution of that OSGeo Spanish-speaking community I mentioned before. With the OSGeo Foundation, the FOSS4G conference started as well, and in 2010 it was held in Barcelona. After the conference, the local committee realized they liked working together and continued gathering, and that’s how Geoinquiets started (Geoinquietos in the Catalan language). You can read more about that story at Raf Roset’s geohipster interview. Afterward, other cities in Spain and South America followed that lead, creating a loose network of people interested in Open Source and Open Data.

Geoinquietos is not really unique. It’s very similar to other initiatives like Maptime or Geomob. They all are about that same old human need of gathering and sharing. You know, we are all busy with our work, quite often with people that don’t share our interest in Geo, so having the chance to meet up with like-minded folks is just great. I love Geoinquietos because you can have at the same table a developer, an archaeologist, a surveyor, and an entrepreneur, all together talking about OpenStreetMap, urban planning, routing tools, and whatnot.

I also like the idea of many of us having some strong connections in different groups. It is great you can visit a city and be sure some folks will want to meet up, or the opposite, to know a geo-friend is coming to town and a few locals will want to gather and have a chat.

Q: I read on your blog that you’re a big sailor. How did you get into that? Any future sailing goals?

A: Oh, you said it wrong. I’m big, period. And then I’m a bit of a sailor 😂. I got into sailing only around ten years ago when I started attending sailing practice with my Prodevelop friends some Friday afternoons after work. Shortly after, I got a skipper license to learn more about the craft and began to participate in sailing activities in bigger yachts. In 2016 I joined the Oosterschelde to sail from Douarnenez in France to Oban* in Scotland. I realized then that that was the kind of sailing I loved the most: a big schooner where everyone in the crew had to hoist sails, take the wheel, help on the galley, and learn together about the sea.

One of the many things I love about this kind of activity is that you join an effort to move the boat from point A to point B, and everyone is needed. You work in shifts that rotate through the day, collaborating in the common goal of arriving at B successfully. People from different cultures, ages, and backgrounds, total strangers before starting the trip, and enclosed in a not so ample space 24 hours a day, need to learn many things quickly. This gets you in a very particular mood, a mix of confusion, excitement, positivism, and sometimes a bit of fear. Some may be experienced sailors, others like more occasional practitioners, some absolutely new to the experience, but everyone learns and enjoys the trip together. I totally recommend it, no previous experience is needed, and it is OK for all ages. I’ve sailed with people in their 20s and in their 80s.

BTW, there’s nothing like arriving at a harbor (maybe even in a different country!) after a few days on the sea, eager to explore what the place has to offer.

Last December, I became a dad, so I don’t really think I’ll have the time or the motivation for long sailing trips in the near term. Yet, on my bucket list, I have the Atlantic Ocean crossing; something like Cape Verde to the Caribbean would be incredible. Another dream would be to sail to Antarctica. I have also to admit I have never been on a regular touristy cruise, maybe that’s something we can do as a family until my son is old enough to join me on a long sailing trip!

Q: What’s your most geo geek interest?

A: Ahh, so hard to say. I’m interested primarily in technology around web mapping and data processing. I love “analog” cartography styling, and watching NACIS talks about hand-drawn maps is always a joy. Still, at the end of the day, any advancement in the Open Source to process, distribute, and display geospatial data will always attract me. An example of a recent interest would be the advances in file formats optimized for the Cloud and HTTP Range Get requests. COGs (Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF) are already pretty popular and being adopted, but there’s already a new cool kid on the block that would be the COG vector counterpart called FlatGeobuf. I hope we will see many projects experimenting around this new format, and at some point I’d love to tinker with it as well.

Q: What makes you a geohipster?

A: You mean apart from the flip flops, right? Just kidding 😂. I always try to stay positive and open-minded, with a never-ending curiosity for all kinds of topics. I like to have an eye on what is out of the mainstream industry trends. Maybe that makes me some sort of geohipster, or at least a good Geoinquieto 🤗.

*Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this interview misspelled Oban as “Hoban”. In an effort to avert a worldwide Twitter flame war, we have made the correction and added a link.

Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Ursula Kaelin, May

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m in my late twenties and currently working as a research assistant at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland.

I obtained a Master’s degree in Geomatics at ETH Zurich. After an apprenticeship I was still struggling to see in which direction my career path could lead and now I’m lucky to somewhat delay this decision a bit further while working on a diversity of research projects.

After the working hours mainly in front of the screen I like to use my free time for some walks in nature or doing creative stuff. It’s not hard to guess that the preferred material right now is paper.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: I was playing around with Sonobe-units, assembled them into smaller modular objects and brought some as decoration to the office. The question of a work colleague if it would be possible to put them together as a map was answered with a hesitant “yes” because of the intimidating amount of needed modules to get a decent resolution, but now the idea was stuck in my head.

After the initial planning (~670 modules) and purchasing of the paper a (rather soft) Corona-lockdown with prescribed home office took place. I then not only had enough time to realize the project, it also helped me to stay sane and gave me a real incentive to finish it so that it could be used as my video-conferencing background.

The picture shown in the calendar is taken at our office space where the map found its new home. I myself am again back in the home office waiting for better times and sometimes killing some more time with folding…

I want to mention Peter Keller (@valleyfolder) for the inspiration with his Sonobe-unit carpets that sometimes look like heat maps. Designers of the models included in the map are Patricia Crawford (full rigged ship), Paolo Bascetta (Rosa dei Venti), Jo Nakashima (velociraptor) and Kade Chan (gray whale).

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

A: A black-white raster image showing the continents and some code in Python lead to the basic construction plan of the desired resolution and with randomly assigned colors. Other tools used were paper, a knife, my hands and some sticks and nails to hang it to the wall. And as already mentioned: No glue.

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.