I’ve been making maps professionally for over 10 years now. But when I’m not doing that, I could be cooking, messing around in VR (how exactly do you ingest geojson into Unity, anyway?), or running about as fast as the world’s fastest 90 year old. Seriously, I looked it up; his name is Frederico Fischer. My sprinting pace is terrible, but it keeps my legs thicc at least.
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).
Oh hey, speaking of running – my boss had the idea for this map while he was training for his first marathon. He came into work on Monday and explained how cool it would be if we could produce a map that showed the bounding boxes of every map our business had ever made. I agreed that it would indeed be cool. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Working on something completely unrelated a couple of months later, which required me to programmatically extract the coordinates at the corners of some map documents, I was reminded of his idea. A bit of Python frankenscripting later – with StackExchange acting as Igor – and I was able to unleash this on our entire corporate directory of map files. Turns out, in ten years of using our current GIS, we’ve collectively authored over eighty thousand maps.
Zooming in to Melbourne (which accounted for 30,000+ maps on its own), I started to play around with layered transparencies to visualise the data. This eventually evolved into a nice glowy blue colour scheme, which reminded me of deep space images of clusters of stars and galaxies, connected by glowing filaments.
This map has no practical use. I’m fine with that. There’s still something really satisfying about it, how it just hints at the tens of thousands of hours of work that went in to making all of those maps, which are reduced down to their most basic representation. It looks nice too (I think). If you got a GeoHipster calendar, I hope you think so too, because you’re stuck with it for this month.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
To scrape the data: A simple, custom Python script, run over a big and messy nested directory structure, full of .mxd files. It extracted the x/y min/max coordinates of every map document, and reconstituted them into a shapefile full of rectangles.
To visualise the data: A mixture of ArcGIS Pro (I love the feature-level transparency), InkScape, and Paint.net.
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 originally saw the Roads to Rome project from moovel Lab and was really inspired by that. I wanted to recreate that with my own tools. I had already done a few similar maps before this, but this one was custom made for the GeoHipster calendar submissions! While making the map I learned a lot more about Python. Basically before venturing into this, my Python skills were almost non-existent, but this was a great way to learn as I had a clear goal in mind. Writing the simple script for the API calls was a small step for mankind, but a big step for me. I wanted to keep the style really simple and clean so I didn’t want to add anything else than the routes and graticules on the final map.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: The data is from OpenStreetMap. Routing is done with the great GraphHopper open source routing engine. GPX routes were then stored into a single PostGIS table and visualized with QGIS. Graticules are from Natural Earth.
Maggie Cawley is the Founder of Boomerang Geospatial, a geospatial consulting company specializing in education and dabbling in other map-related endeavors. Current Boomerang efforts include developing curriculum around open source GIS and leading educational and wildlife trips in southern Africa. She volunteers with TeachOSM to integrate geography back into classrooms through open mapping, and supports OpenStreetMap US as a board member. She recently helped start Diadia Craft Collective with a Sān Bushmen community in Botswana and African Connection with musicians in Ghana to support sustainable economic development and cultural collaboration (and also, for fun!).
Maggie was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.
So Maggie Cawley – where are you in the world currently and what do you do?
Way to start with the tough ones 😉 At the moment I am splitting my time mostly between Denmark and the US. This week I am in Baltimore, in my first leased apartment in 5 years. I can count on one hand the weeks I’ve been here since I moved in, but it is a welcome change after sleeping in 40+ beds over the last year. My front porch is a sanctuary!
What do I do? I am a freelance open source mapping consultant through my company Boomerang Geospatial, which equates to a smattering of jobs. I love training new mappers as much as I love diving into a dataset and surfacing with a beautiful map. I volunteer on the steering committee for the TeachOSM project, and we provide educational support for OpenStreetMap and work to get OpenStreetMap and open mapping into classrooms around the world. One of my goals is to develop a knowledge management system for the project – a giant library of every OSM-related educational nugget ever created. I also volunteer as a board member for OpenStreetMap US, which includes weekly board meetings, State of the Map US planning meetings, and hiring committee meetings as we are looking to hire the organization’s first Executive Director.
When wearing my other hats, I facilitate and lead safaris and educational trips to southern Africa, recently became the representative for Diadia, a small jewelry making collective in the Kalahari, and in a few months I will be playing keyboard in Denmark with my band African Connection.
Are there more people wanting to know about OpenStreetMap?
I like to think there are millions of people just waiting to find out! In my experience, once people hear a little about OpenStreetMap they are curious to know more. In a classroom or training situation that is especially true. If a few complaints surface about other online map sources having incorrect or missing information, you definitely have a starting point.
I see that you taught an OSM workshop in St Lucia with Steven Johnson a few years ago. How difficult is OSM to teach to people unfamiliar with the idea of a crowd sourced map?
I have had the privilege of teaching workshops with Steven Johnson in a few wonderful places, including St Lucia, over the past few years; places that aren’t always adequately mapped, where errors are commonplace, and where people are excited to learn new technology. The initial conveyance of the concept of an editable world map is not always easy, and there is always the, “Isn’t everything already mapped? What about Google?” to get through – but once people sign up and start editing in their neighborhood, the comprehension begins. I find it important to take the process & understanding outside, and workshops incorporate a field mapping exercise whenever possible. Bringing new mappers outside to map using a GPS unit, Field Papers, Mapillary, OSMAnd, Maps.Me or other mobile mapping tools brings geography into a 1:1 scale, and creates a concrete relationship to what is on the ground and what is on The Map. After this portion of the workshop, mapping in the classroom is brought to a new level and the understanding deepens.
We’ve run into each other at FOSS4GNA Conferences through the years – in 2016 you did a presentation on some work you did in Africa. How did you get from Baltimore to staring at Elephants in Africa?
This is a long story, but I will try to provide the abridged version! Back in 2013, I quit a full time job as an environmental planner to start a business and travel. I was ready for a change. My idea was to travel as long as I could, looking for opportunities to map along the way. The first stop was Sodwana Bay, South Africa where I couchsurfed with a man who takes people on overland trips in southern Africa in his Land Rover through his company Winterdodger Expeditions. When I arrived, he was about to do 3 months through 23 national parks and at least 6 countries. He had an extra tent and room in the Landy, so I jumped in. Two months into that trip, we stopped in western Botswana, at a place in the Kalahari Desert called Dqae Qare – a game reserve run by the San Bushmen. I saw they did not have an accurate map of the reserve, and offered my services in exchange for a few cold Windhoek lagers and a few nights in a real bed. Over the next week, our team of three travelers navigated the entire farm (more than 150 km) and mapped every road, pan, campsite, water tap, view point and amenity we could find – and I realized just how special a place we had found. I was hooked. The map now lives on their reception wall.
Photo: January 2018, in front of the map in Dqae with GWU professors Joseph Dymond and Richard Hinton.
After that trip, I continued to travel on my own, but my mind continued to return to southern Africa. Fast forward to early 2015 when I received a message from a friend in South Africa who needed someone with mapping knowledge, equipment, and teaching experience to lead a group of students from a French University in a conservation project to support Lake Sibaya – South Africa’s largest freshwater lake. Fortunately, I was teaching in Mauritius at the time, and the trip to SA was not too far. After that month mapping wildlife and teaching in Sibaya, I partnered with his company Winterdodger to do more trips in the region. Save Sibaya is now an ongoing project, and visitors continually add to the wildlife census database.
Photo: Lake Sibaya, 2015 – a drone demo for the French students to collect imagery of the changing lake.
Most recently, I led my first study abroad group from George Washington University on a trip to Botswana through Boomerang. We returned to Dqae Qare, and even spent some time contributing to OpenStreetMap in the local San village where we were volunteering. As far as elephants, I don’t think I will ever tire of staring, and can’t wait to share that experience with the next car full of interested people! GeoHipster safari anyone?
Photos: The GWU students on a walking safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
So you’re out mapping in a game preserve – how does that work? On foot? What were your tools?
Roads are mostly done by car (usually a Land Rover) with a handheld or car GPS. I have also hooked a Garmin watch to the dashboard and just let it do its thing. For smaller paths and points of interest, I use a solid pair of boots and a basic Garmin GPS unit. In some cases an aerial view is nice to have so I’ll use a drone. At a national park in Malawi we were trying to spot some klipspringer, so I flew a Phantom drone – it was the first version and I just hooked my watch to the base for a GPS backup for the path. In Botswana we had some students helping to do mammal tracking with a specific interest in cheetah. We went out with two Bushmen tracking guides and marked the different footprints and skat we could find, again with basic GPS. I know there are more fancy tools out there, but all of these projects have been done on a shoestring budget so we keep it simple.
What do you do with the data? Maps? Does it live on a computer somewhere?
Mostly map it. In Botswana, the cheetah data was given to the managing trust, or made into maps for them. The data that doesn’t immediately become a map lives on one of my portable hard drives just waiting for the chance to make its mapping debut.
Was there a fear of becoming lunch?
There is always that sense of ‘what the hell am I doing out here?’ But, it’s exciting. And beautiful. In Malawi, that national park was known for having some aggressive elephant herds that you do not want to face on foot. We had the opportunity to scramble around on one of the only rock outcrops looking for signs of these tiny antelope, with a view of an incredible, vast landscape below – those moments make it all worth it. And you can stare at the elephant from afar!
In Botswana we knew there were no lions or elephants, but the snakes and hyenas in the Kalahari are enough to keep me on my toes. Ostrich can also pack a punch as well, especially if you unknowingly wander towards one of their nests. Tread lightly!
Photo: The cheetah tracking group in Dqae Qare Game Reserve.
How hard is it leading a group of college students who haven’t been in that environment before?
It can be challenging at times, and very worrying at others. But seeing anyone lay eyes upon the wildlife for the first time makes it all worthwhile. Unless it’s a bull elephant 4 meters away and they all scream “AN ELEPHANT!” and gesticulate wildly, not noticing the elephants accelerated advance… then, all bets are off! Mostly though, students are respectful of the people and animals we meet, and just want to know more. On my last trip I also had the privilege of traveling with two wonderful GWU professors that were a great help. Many are also very afraid of becoming lunch!
I want to break new ground on this interview – Jewelry making collective in the Kalahari? We’ve never talked about jewelry on any GeoHipster interview.
Hard to believe there’s never been any geo-jewelry talk! I am honored to be the first. In January when I was in Botswana with the GW students, a local village artisan taught a workshop on how to make beads out of ostrich egg shells. I had seen the jewelry many times during visits to the area – at lodges, at the airport, etc – and came to find out that sales by a larger organization were not helping the local village artisans. After a week in the village, the director of the village trust asked me if I would help to sell the jewelry. The San are a very marginalized population, and there are very few opportunities for employment in the area. Making sure the artisans knew I had no previous experience in the field, I agreed – but only if they would organize into a collective so that I could just be the sales rep. In March, a friend delivered a package containing 20lbs of ostrich egg jewelry to Denmark, and in April the Diadia Craft Collective was formed. Right now it is seven women from different families within the village. It is a new endeavor for me, and it’s a bit more complicated than scrambling up that rock outcropping looking for klipspringer – but I’m so excited to give it a try. I have designed a website, and I will have my first market table this weekend in Baltimore. Hopefully by my next trip to Botswana I’ll be needing to pick up a second package of inventory. It would be wonderful to create a profitable livelihood in a village that would sustain the families and also the ancient bead making tradition.
Do you feel like a geohipster?
Ha. I tried that role once. The tire of my rented foldable bike got caught in a train track on my way to a FOSS4G PDX event a few years ago, and I showed up with torn pants and a bloody knee. Hipster move? I think not. 🙂 But if a geohipster lives “on the outskirts of mainstream GIS”? Yeah, I probably fit that description.
OK – before I do the last question – Band?
I blame this one on fate. And again, I’ll try to keep it short! Two years ago I was taking a group of students with Winterdodger through Botswana. Along the way I met a Danish musician with whom I shared some of my wildlife photographs. He immediately invited me to join his band on tour in Ghana a month later as their tour photographer. It took some juggling and a leap of faith, but one month later I was in Ghana, in a van with 8 Danish & Ghanaian musicians. Half way through the tour, things went south with the lead Ghanaian musician. Instead of breaking up, the remaining musicians came together to make some new music. I picked up a cowbell and joined in the fun. By the end of the trip, we recorded two songs, wrote a few more, and the band African Connection was formed. I love the cowbell, but I now play keyboard for the band (with an occasional cowbell interlude), and still handle most of the photography and press. Our first album, Queens & Kings, was recorded last year in Denmark and released in March. We will go on our first tour this October in Denmark and Germany, and hopefully return to Ghana with the music in early 2019. It is a challenge working from 3 continents, but it makes it that much more special when we can all get together. I feel really lucky to be a part of the project and have the opportunity to try something completely different. We are on Spotify if you’d like to check us out!
Photo: Music For All festival performance in Cape Coast, Ghana – January 2017.
The last question is yours. This is your chance to yell at the world and tell it something it needs to know.
You won’t know unless you go! When I quit my job to freelance and travel, I thought I knew where it would take me. I was way off. Frustrated at first, I then realized that I had leapt into a raging river, and the only way to stay afloat was to trust it, even if I kept hitting sharp rocks along the way. It was hard to ignore a society that wanted to bully me into the things I was ‘supposed’ to be doing – confidence can start to waiver when you have no work or are spewing your guts & belly crawling across a salt pan in the middle of the night – but what else can we do but keep going? I often have to remind myself to just show up. Some days it is difficult to get up in the morning, but if you are already in the river, sometimes all you really need to do is hold your head up and have a little faith. And I must add – I am grateful for the amazing and supportive people I’ve met in the FOSS4G and OpenStreetMap communities. We help keep each other afloat, and that is a beautiful thing. I hope we can maintain that spirit – welcome a new person into the geo community or talk to someone you don’t know at the next meet up – collaboration and support are key, especially now.
Tina is a remote sensing scientist with over 10 years of experience working at the crossroads of spatial analysis and machine learning. She is an active member of the FOSS4G community and an OSGeo charter member. At TellusLabs, a Boston startup, she is responsible for turning raw images into agricultural and environmental insights that help answer critical questions facing our society. In her previous position at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), she linked field measurements with remotely sensed optical, LiDAR, and radar products to model ecosystem responses to changes in the environment. Tina earned an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of New Hampshire and an Honors B.A. in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College.
Q: Tina Cormier, where are you located and what do you do?
A: I live in Brunswick, Maine. As far as what I do, my answer is “way too many things”! But at work, I am a remote sensing scientist on the data science team at Telluslabs, a Boston startup. Like most startups, it’s a very fast-paced environment. We are a small (but growing) team, and I’m constantly amazed at how much we accomplish in a short period of time.
We use machine learning to combine decades of remote sensing images with in situ reference data. Every single day we incorporate new images and ground data into our system. Why? We want to leverage the information locked inside of this unprecedented historic record of the earth to answer critical questions that we care about — questions about the environment and questions that affect our economy. Right now, we are primarily focused on agriculture and building a living map of the world’s food supply, but our tech stack is structured to allow us to quickly branch into other important sectors as the team grows and as we hire the resources to do so.
My specific role involves converting raw satellite imagery into “insights”, or features that are meaningful for our modeling team. For example, millions of raw satellite reflectance values may not be very meaningful, but when we can turn them into a Crop Health Index, now we’re talking. Even more valuable insights begin to coalesce when we can compare today’s crop health index value to a long term average, or when we can turn on a rapid detection and alerting system for extreme anomalies in the growing regions that we monitor. Then we can start to answer questions about the status of the world’s food supply on any given day or season.
I also work on creating raster visualizations (typically developed in QGIS) for our web app, Kernel. Day to day, I spend a lot of time writing code, primarily in R — though I’m determined to get a better handle on Python and become fluent in PostgreSQL/PostGIS — right now, I’d say I’m conversational at best!
I’m something of a compulsive FOSS4G user and evangelist, which is why I recently became a charter member of OSGeo (that just means I get to vote on things — mostly new board and charter members). In the last couple of years, I’ve worked hard to bring R into the light for geospatial data science folks via social media and presenting at conferences. Last year, I presented three talks and a workshop at FOSS4G, which was tons of fun!
Q: How do you get to be a charter member of OSGeo?
A: To become a charter member of OSGeo, you must be nominated by an existing charter member (thanks, Alex Mandel!) and demonstrate a number of positive attributes with regard to the open source community. My nomination was based largely on my role as a geospatial R evangelist — a role I didn’t necessarily want, but the mix of a large gap in representation with oppressive guilt made me do it! In particular, my almost excessive participation at last year’s FOSS4G conference in Boston was largely responsible for my eventual nomination/election to the group.
Q: How did you get into the Geospatial Field? Was it an end goal of college?
A: So, no. Geospatial was not an end goal or even on my radar. I got my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College. There, I worked on a project where we radio-tagged turtles and tracked them over the course of a year — turns out, they travel surprising distances through all sorts of habitats — I mean, they are turtles, so who knew? We used triangulation to figure out where we were each day and put our turtle sightings on a map — no GPS! I’m laughing to myself about this now. But really, I loved that project so much. That said, I had no idea that I was doing GIS or even what it was.
Fast forward through a few confused and frustrating years post-graduation where I did everything from coaching soccer and teaching high school (something I hope to go back to at some point later in my career) to working for a pharmaceutical company as a clinical data manager, checking to make sure drug trial protocols were followed. One day I woke up and said to myself, “Ok, I need to make a move here, I’m going to grad school.” And so it was. I knew I wanted to stay in the environmental field and sort of assumed I’d go the PhD/professor route.
The following fall, I started a Natural Resources/Remote Sensing Masters degree at the University of New Hampshire. I still had no idea what GIS or remote sensing was, but I got a teaching assistantship that paid my way and it all sounded quite interesting, so I decided to dive in. I had to get up to speed pretty quickly, though, as I was charged with teaching GIS and remote sensing classes that I had never taken before! My Master’s thesis was an exciting (to me) combination of remote sensing, GIS, and machine learning — I built a model that predicts vernal pool locations based on image and GIS-based predictors. My journey can pretty accurately be described as a fortunate series of chances, risks, and leaps of faith that somehow worked in my favor and landed me in a career that I enjoy. And the rest, as they say, is history!
Q: You mentioned R and you did a workshop at FOSS4G in Boston on R which was pretty well received (I tried to sneak in and couldn’t). What is R and why do you like — possibly love — R? I don’t know enough about it but I’m trying.
A: R is an open source software project and programming language. It is held in pretty high regard by academics and data scientists, and is becoming more mainstream among spatial analysts as well. For those who want to automate their work through coding, R is essentially a fully functional command line GIS. The most important reason that I use R (or any programming language) is because it offers repeatability, automation, and documentation of my work — YUP, I just did that…RAD!
I will admit that I didn’t always love it. I had a hard time learning it, and that process involved a lot of foul language. Fortunately, I had some great mentors to pull me through, including an amazing group of former colleagues from the Woods Hole Research Center.
What I like (love?) about R is that I can script my entire workflow — from data cleanup/wrangling (for which R is exceptional), to spatial and statistical analysis, to publication of beautiful figures to tell my story — all in one environment. And once I’ve coded my workstream, I have a complete record of what I did, including which files I used and how I processed them. Working with terabytes (maybe petabytes?) of data — many thousands of images and files — there is no option about programming; it is a necessity to automate my work. R does have some drawbacks though — the biggest of which is that it does everything in memory. Advances in technology have provided a lot of ways to work around the memory limitation though, including better hardware as well as easier ways to chunk up the data and distribute processing. As a spatial data scientist, R is the complete package, with possibly the exception of cartography. While I’ve seen folks do some neat things with maps in R, my go-to for a single, really nice map is still QGIS.
Q: So when you’re at college you meet this dashing young man whom you eventually married — correct?
A: Yes, sir! We met in graduate school. I had been there for about 6 months and kept hearing about this other student, Jesse, who was doing field work in New Zealand. One day around Christmas he showed up in the lab (to my delight). He ended up being my TA for one of the remote sensing classes. Hope there is a statute of limitations for that sort of impropriety, but we are married now, if that helps his case.
Q: Two married people in the GIS field — do you both sit around and talk about spatial things?
A: Sometimes, but over the years we have developed a code of conduct regarding work talk. Jesse and I have worked together for a long time, including 2.5 years at the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas and 6 years at the Woods Hole Research Center. Early on, we agreed that we would only talk about work during our commute. At home, work is off-limits. And today, even though we don’t work together anymore, the same pretty much holds true. We’ll talk about each other’s days over dinner, and we may discuss a programming puzzle now and then, but for the most part, we keep work at work. It’s a nice separation that keeps us mostly sane.
Q: OK — You’re working at Tellus. You’ve worked at Woods Hole Research Center. What is the most exciting thing you’ve done up till now in the industry?
A: That’s a tough question, as I’ve had the good fortune of doing a lot of fun things during various jobs, including field work in all sorts of environments, from the tropics to the desert (not always fun, but always interesting). Some of my most wonderful work memories come from teaching technical workshops in various parts of the world. During my time at WHRC I taught workshops here in the US, but I also frequently traveled to South America — Colombia, Peru, Bolivia — thank you, undergraduate minor in Spanish! My farthest trip was to Nepal, which was just amazing. The workshops were designed to build capacity in remote sensing, programming, and forestry within indigenous groups, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in developing countries. I made some lifelong friends who were gracious enough to share their culture with me, teach me to salsa, and even introduce me to their families and friends. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to share my experience while seeing some incredible places and meeting equally incredible people.
Q: Which is better: A horse or bicycle? Why?
A: I suppose there are pros and cons to each. To my knowledge, bicycles are not spooked by plastic bags, motorcycles, mailboxes, or any other brand of vicious predator you may happen upon in the course of a ride. A bicycle is not typically going to buck you off, though I feel like I may have been bucked off by a bike in the past. It won’t walk away when you try to get on, demand carrots and apples (and frisk your pockets looking for them if you don’t deliver), ask for a scratch in just the right spot (the belly on my guy), knicker when you arrive, look longingly after you when you leave, play with you, choose to be your partner, and it won’t love you back. A bicycle does not have a mind of its own, with memories of positive and negative experiences. It doesn’t have good days and bad days, and it cannot learn, grow, bond, and communicate with you. So, while horses can be dangerous for many of the above reasons, those are also the reasons why horses will always be better than bicycles, in my opinion.
Q: Anything you want to tell the world?
A: I guess having worked in tech/geospatial for “several” years now, I could offer some advice.
Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t be afraid to fail and break things. If you never fail, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough!
Learn to code (see #1).
Impostor syndrome will get you nowhere. Focus on your strengths and what you bring to a situation, and don’t lament not knowing what everyone else seems to know. They don’t.
Help people. You didn’t get wherever you are on your own — pay it forward when you can.
Take time off. It never feels like a good time, but you need to do it, so just do it.
Adopt an animal (unrelated, but still important!).
I’m still working on all of these… except #6… I’ve probably done enough of #6 for the moment.
Ari Gesher, Matt Gordon and Julia Chmyz work at Kairos Aerospace, a Bay-Area-based company specializing in aerospace solutions for environmental surveying and digital mapping. Ari, Matt and Julia were interviewed in person by Amy Smith during the 2018 Mapbox Locate Conference in San Francisco. Describe Kairos Aerospace.
Ari: Kairos applies the notions of faster, cheaper, iterative cycles of technology to Aerospace. Specifically, with the mission of building sensors to spot very large leaks of Methane.
Julia: A less high-level description of Kairos — Kairos deploys aerial sensors, spectrometers, optical cameras, and thermal cameras to conduct large-scale surveys of assets from oil and gas companies, to survey those assets to discover things about them.
Matt: Kairos is a bunch of physicists and engineers who care about health and safety and climate change. We fly sensors and sell data about environmental pollutants (specifically methane) to oil and gas producers.
What led you each to Kairos?
Ari: I ended up at Kairos because the two original founders, Steve Deiker and Brian Jones, both worked at Lockheed for a long time, and they decided to start their own company. Steve’s wife worked with me at Palantir, and they knew that everything they were going to do was going to require a lot of heavy data processing, and that was not an area of expertise for them. They approached me for advice around what it would take to build a team with that kind of ability. That was late 2014. I was instantly interested, it sounded really, really cool… But, for reasons of childbirth, I was not about to switch jobs; I ended up being the original angel investor. Two years later I came on board as the director of software engineering.
Julia: Brian’s wife worked with the woman who was married to my grandfather. And so, my grandfather was actually another one of those original investors — This was 2015 — and he was saying to me, “Julia, there’s this great new company.” And I’m like, “Okay, Grandpa… I’m sure. That’s cool.”
Grandpa says, “They’re so great! They’re so great! You gotta send ‘em your resumé.” I was in school at the time (I’m a year out of college now), and I said, “Okay, fine grandpa, I’ll send ‘em my resumé.”
I hadn’t really looked into it, I just didn’t really want to work at this company my grandpa thought was so cool. But I sent my resumé, and I was really clear about this, I was like, “My grandpa’s really excited about this, but I’m not sure it’s such a good fit.” — expecting to give them an easy way out.
And instead, they wrote back and said, “We’re really interested! Your resumé looks great, we’d really love to have you on board.” So I came in and talked, and actually got to see for myself. And I was like, this looks really great. So I was an intern in the summer of 2016, when we were a third of size we are now. And then I came back full-time a year ago.
Matt: There’s a lot of funny history between Ari and I, which I won’t go into. I had just done my postdoc at Stanford in physics, and Ari recruited me to go work at Palantir. Then, about six years later, I quit and I was bumming around a bit, and making fire art.
Matt: Making fire art… yeah… and I thought I would go get a real job. Ari, at that point, was an angel investor, and he tried to recruit me into his current job.
Ari: That’s right, I tried to hire Matt for my current job.
Matt: And I turned him down to go start my own company, to develop online treatment for substance use disorders. Which, let’s say, the world was not ready for… [Polite chuckles] Mark my words: you’re going to see it.
And then about a year after doing that, Ari saw I was on the job market again, and asked me to come work at Kairos, on a team of four people – two full-times, an intern, and a couple of physicists who commited code to our code base (for better or for worse).
How many people are there now?
So it’s grown quite a bit?
Matt: Yeah. It’s moving.
Ari: Yeah there was sort of two different phases. The first two years, Brian and Steve quit their jobs and were literally in their garage in Los Altos, developing the hardware that is the heart of the methane sensor (which is the imaging spectrometer). And there’s pictures; like, one of them’s across the street, positioning a methane cell in the light path of a heliostat, the other one’s at the laptop with the original Mark-1 Spectrometer, making sure it worked.
Do they still have that?
Ari: They do — it sits on a shelf, and looks like a broken projector or something. [chuckles] So, the first two years was just validating that the hardware would work, and at the end of that, they had the design for what is today our production spectrometer, and the first production-designed unit (although we’re probably going to throw that one out pretty soon.)
The next two years have been developing both the operational side (How do we hook this thing up to a computer, and fly it, and collect data?), and also the software pipelines that sit behind it (How do we take that data off the instrument once it’s done? How do we upload it to the cloud, and develop the algorithms, from scratch, that turn that spectrographic data into the plume images that we have?).
Walk me through the process of: going out and sensing the area, to: you have a final product; and what that final product looks like.
Ari: The way that this works is that we’re given an area, a spot on the ground — the job we’re working on now is about 1,300 square miles?
Matt: We’re given a shapefile.
Ari: Right, we’re given a shapefile, and if we’re lucky, we’re also given a list of assets (another shapefile that tells us where all their wells and storage tanks and things are, so we can identify things once we find a plume over them). We then draw up flight plans to go fly over that area… like, if you look at it, you see the plane going back and forth like a lawn mower. And then, that data goes through the processing pipeline.
Example of a flight path
What comes out the other end are a stack of rasters that show us various measures of what the spectrometer has picked up. At a very rough level, what we’re actually sensing is a methane anomaly. Methane is everywhere in the atmosphere at some level; so it’s not “Is there methane here or is there no methane?”, but “Is there elevated methane?”
We use the large survey area, or chunks of it, to develop what we think the background levels of methane are in that area of the atmosphere. And then, we look for places in the data where there are elevated levels, and use that to interpolate a plume shape.
Example of a plume
One of the things we like to do at GeoHipster is geek out about the tools that people use; tell me about your day-to-day.
Ari: We’re mostly a Python shop. Very large amounts of effort dedicated to making GDAL install and compile correctly.
Matt: I do a lot of the GIS stuff at Kairos. There’s all the code for taking remote sensing data and GPS, and figuring out where that was placed on the ground. Then, taking all of that and creating GeoTIFFs out of that, with all the different metrics that we’re interested in.
Ari: And that’s all custom software, we don’t even use GDAL very much. We use GDAL to open the dataset that we write, but how we figure out what goes into each pixel is all ours.
Matt: Yeah, the ground placement of remote-sensed data is an art form… it’s interesting how much we’ve built from scratch. I think people with a lot of background in this probably know a lot of tricks and tools (and I’ve heard tell that there’s a book, but I’ve been unable to find it).
In terms of GIS nerdery: we used to do a lot of ad-hoc analysis in QGIS, and as we were increasing the number of reports we wanted to produce for customers, we wrote a QGIS plugin. It’s custom, and it’s not published anywhere because it’s specific to our workflow and our data, and it gives people summary information.
Anyone who has used QGIS will know that it’s like, incredibly powerful and can be incredibly frustrating. And if anyone from QGIS is reading this, I want them to know that I really appreciate the tool. We love it, and we would use something else if we thought it was better, and we don’t. There’s nothing else better.
Julia, you work on the tools that pilots use when they’re out collecting data. Can you tell us a bit about those?
Julia: There’s the feed that the flight operator sees in the plane, and the spectrometer frames that are being taken. There’s also all the IMU data that’s used for path stuff and all the later calculations… and this is our flight monitoring Mapbox Leaflet. The back end is built in Python, and the front end is in React.
Matt: Ari’s contribution was the X-Wing fighter.
Julia: The point of this is to make everything work as smoothly as possible — so the flight operators don’t have to spend their time staring at multiple log files, which is what they were doing before this.
Matt: So imagine a terminal, and just watching lines of term logs scroll past… in an airplane. In a very small plane.
Ari: Well, now that they use this, they say that they get kind of bored on the plane, because it gives them everything they need. In fact, we built this this tool not just to spit the information to the operator, but it also ingests all the raw data coming off the instrument; and we have a bunch of agents that watch that data for different conditions, and control the instruments.
It’s called R2CH4 as an homage to R2D2, who’s an astromech repair droid — and its primary job is not to save the universe, its primary job is just to make the X-Wing go.
I wouldn’t have caught that reference.
Well, CH4 is Methane sooooo… [makes the “ba-dum-tssssss” joke sound]
What do you do when you’re not at work – any hobbies? Matt, I heard about yours a little already: I know you’re a fire artist and you hang-glide?
Matt: I don’t hang-glide anymore, but yeah, I build weird Burner kinetic fire art. I’m making a fire Skee-Ball machine right now, where the balls are on fire. You get to wear big, fireproof kevlar gloves. I was going to bring it to Precompression, which is the pre-Burning Man party they do in SF, but the SF fire department nixed it.
Ari: I dabble in home automation. That’s kind of my tinkering hobby currently. I mean, I’ve had really good hobbies, but now my hobbies are basically my two children. But, you know… I used to be a DJ for a little while. I swear I used to have better hobbies — but I’ve really just been well-employed for like twelve years.
Julia: I spend most of my free time either outside, like hiking, or reading — real books with paper.
Ari: I thought that was illegal now?
Julia: It is here.
Just one last question for you.
Ari: 4-3-2-6! I’m glad you asked — it’s my favorite coordinate system.
Matt: 3-8-5-7 is way better, man.
Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
Ari: Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting that all of us came to Kairos, not completely illiterate in the ways of GIS, but certainly not as well-steeped. And I was actually thinking about this on the way home: we have non-GIS operational data about what we do, but the core of what we do — everything is geo data. Like, there’s no non-geo data. And, what we’re trying to build is: taking a novel stream of data about the earth, and then running it through very, very modern software pipelines, to automate its processing, it’s production, all of that, in a way that requires understanding the bleeding edge of technology and blending that with GIS. And that’s what we spend all day doing.
Matt: I am geohipster because I make artisanal Geo data. And I’m opinionated about it. And I’m obnoxious. So, here a thing that I do, which is super geohipster: We produce a lot of stuff internally at the company, in WGS84 — which is not a projected coordinate system. It’s a geo-coordinate system — and I constantly complain about this. That we are producing GeoTIFFs in 4326, but we should be producing them in a projected coordinate system.
Julia: …And I want to tell you, we were doing all this way before it was cool.
Ari: One last thing — we use US-West 2 as our AWS data center, because it’s carbon-neutral (they run entirely on hydropower), so it fits in well with our overall mission.
Muthukumar Kumar lives approximately near bulges.become.bowls (Munich, Germany). An active blogger, he has been blogging with Geoawesomeness for the past 5 years and loves talking about everything geo with geo-geeks from across the world. You can reach him on Twitter @muthukumarceg
Muthukumar was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.
Q: Muthu, let’s dive right into the meat of the matter. How does someone end up in the position of deciding what is geoawesome? And indeed what does it mean for something to be geoawesome?
A: What does the term “geoawesome” mean? Hmm, that’s a great question. Definitions are a tricky thing. The way I see it, the term “Geoawesome” stands for all the cool and innovative things happening in the geo-industry today.
Take the idea behind What3Words for example. The addressing system that we use today doesn’t work well in many parts of the world including in my hometown, Chennai. With today’s technology, we could say, why not just use GPS coordinates or a complicated set of alphanumeric characters to solve this problem. There are many such (complicated) solutions created by Google and others. These solutions don’t work well in the real-world. Try giving out your GPS coordinates over the phone or even typing it without making a mistake. What What3Words did was to remove all these complicated aspects, divide the entire world into 3x3m grids and give each 3x3m box in the world a unique 3-word combination (in different languages). That’s it. It’s simple, elegant, and it works. Now, that’s what it means for something to be geoawesome.
To answer your first question – you get there by making lots of Skype calls with geogeeks around the world. Talking to all these wonderful people from across the world has been a highly rewarding and enriching professional experience. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is passionate about geo-technologies.
Q: One of the megatrends around geo in the last decade is that with the ubiquity of smartphones and social media more people than ever before are being exposed to geographic tools, location-based services, and geo content. You sit at the top of this trend. What’s your view?
A: Smartphones and apps have changed a lot of things in the geo industry. Without smartphones, we wouldn’t have so much geo-tagged data. It has fundamentally changed what one would even refer to as the geo industry. Just because it’s spatial, it’s not special (anymore). Before you get the pitchforks ready, sure, there is still spatial stuff that can’t be done by people without a geospatial background, but most of the times you don’t need any knowledge of map projections to work with location data, and I think that’s great. It has made GIS/Location intelligence ubiquitous.
Smartphones have also made the lives of the traditional geo industry better. Just a decade ago, if you were a data collector, you would have needed a bulky GPS/GNSS receiver and a laptop to collect geo-tagged data about your points of interest. Today all you need is a smartphone and an app.
It’s interesting that you mention social media. Just the other day we interviewed an amazing startup from Cincinnati – Spatial ai as part of a new series at Geoawesomeness called “The Next Geo” which was started to highlight innovative and enterprising startups working with location data. Spatial was co-founded by an ethnographer who had an epiphany and realized people share things on social media that he would probably never hear when he goes out to interview them for his research. Thanks to social media and location data, Spatial is now able to understand where people live and work and the mobility systems that connect them, among other things. Understanding how we interact and experience our cities is going to have a huge impact on designing mobility systems for the future. And of course, with all this data, Spatial can also answer more fun questions like “Take me to a restaurant in Chicago with an amazing view of the sunset”. All this is happening today, so it is exciting to see what is going to be possible in the next 5 years.
On a more fundamental level, one of the biggest challenges that we as a species face today is climate change and the challenges that come with having to satisfy the needs and desires of 7 billion people. Social media is going to play a major role, as more and more cities have to undertake urban planning projects to mitigate these risks. How do we use location data and social media to help cities make local decisions in a more democratic manner?
It took me a while to understand that sometimes the solutions that have the biggest impact on our communities don’t have to be on the scale of “Jarvis”. It can be as simple as an application that sends an SMS to farmers with the weather information for the day. Not long ago, Fraunhofer institute in Germany published an article announcing the launch of an app that uses your smartphone camera as a remote sensor. Now imagine how useful this is going to be for a small-time farmer who doesn’t have access to satellite imagery and analytics to understand what is affecting his/her crops.
I am personally excited to see how we use all the data we generate from our earth observation satellites, combined together with data from our smartphones and other sensors.
Regardless of whether you like to call it GIS, Location Intelligence, Spatial analysis or whatever today’s buzzword generator calls it, the fact is it’s a great time to be working with location data.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get from your readers?
A: We get our fair share of “bouquets and brickbats” and a ton of spam emails from all the kings in exile with a large inheritance. Jokes aside, the community has been very kind to us. It was feedback from a reader that led to the creation of “The Next Geo” series. It was with the help of a reader that we kicked off the Twitter Q&A idea #GeoChat. So it is fair to say that we have received a lot of great ideas from our readers.
We have had our share of (constructive) criticism as well. Be it the blog post “top masters programs in GIS” or “top geospatial companies”, we have gotten a ton of “why would you leave out this program or this company” emails. However, without these emails we wouldn’t have been able to improve our awareness of the community, so keep them coming!
There is one feedback that we are always trying to incorporate and improve: We would love for more people from diverse backgrounds and from different corners of the world to blog together with us and share their views. We have had 70 people blog for Geoawesomeness and I would love to get that to 100 by the end of this year. So if you are reading this and want to blog together with us, just drop me a line.
Q: What has been your favorite bit of geoawesome content the last few years?
A: There are a lot of really interesting blogs/websites out there that I try to follow on a regular basis – Wired’s Map Lab, CItyLabs, Google Maps Mania, Nat Geo, Digital Geography, Slashgeo (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore), GeoHipster, and of course Geoawesomeness 🙂 The best place to find out about the latest and greatest about the geo industry (imho) is Twitter.
Q: When not working on Geoawesomeness you work on satellite stuff, which is of course also fairly, well, geo awesome. Tell us a bit about that.
A: When you say “Satellite stuff”, you make it sound like I am the sidekick to Elon Musk at SpaceX (that would be amazing though). I graduated with a masters in space application engineering from TU Munich and am currently working as a GNSS software engineer at Trimble. Trimble is one of the pioneers when it comes to GPS/GNSS receivers for high accuracy applications, and I am working at their R&D center here in Munich for the better part of the last 3 years now. If I am right, Trimble is one of the few geospatial companies to be listed on the stock market in USA, so that’s something!
Q: You’re based in Munich. While I used to be a regular around the Glockenbachviertel and the beer tents at Oktoberfest (Himmel der Bayern oder Armbrustschützenzelt, natürlich), I concede it has been a while. What’s the Bavarian geohipster scene like these days?
A: The Munich “geohipster” scene is well and alive. A lot of companies working in the space industry call Munich their home. The geo startup scene is also considerably more active compared to a few years ago, thanks largely to a huge interest in the mobility as a service. It is not on a level like Berlin though – we don’t have a Geomob here in Munich. Maybe we should change that! Now, if I only knew someone who knows a thing or two about organizing a Geomob. Say Ed, do you by any chance have any experience with that?
Q: Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Do you ever have days where everything you see is just “geo normal” and nothing seems quite geoawesome? (Editor’s note: this never happens to us at GeoHipster, everything we do is effortlessly geohip.)
A: “Geo normal”? Hahaha this is the first time that I come across this term. I have been accused of perhaps overusing the word “awesome”, but I would gladly take that over ever using the word “geonormal”. Is there ever a day when things are normal? Let me answer that with a quote from Javier, the CEO of Carto: “There’s never been more location data available. There has never been a better time for geography.” There is never a dull day for geography!
Q: Any closing advice for anyone looking to build a geo media empire?
A: I am flattered that you would call Geoawesomeness a “geo media empire”. I am not sure if I am in a position to give out any advice; however, I will say this one thing: Connect with other geogeeks. It is amazing how much one learns just by talking to someone for 5 minutes. And to those of you who are wondering “Sure that sounds great, but how do I actually connect with others?” The answer is simple — write them an email or a tweet with whatever it is that you want to say (Twitter is amazing). I emailed Esri once asking if Jack Dangermond might be interested in blogging for us and sharing his views about the industry, and guess what? He did! Sometimes all it takes is an email or a tweet 🙂
A: I am the owner of a small geo consultancy Bird’s Eye View based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My biggest focus areas are conservation, public health and training, but my clientele have become more and more diverse in recent years. I am an avid open source proponent and have authored two books on QGIS: Mastering QGIS and Discover QGIS. In the small amount of spare time I seem to have, I like working out, getting out into big wild spaces/mountains, playing board games while spinning some vinyl, raising chickens, and good coffee. I also love having the time to be creative and put together a nice map.
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: This map was produced for a coalition working to protect the San Gabriel Mountains called San Gabriel Mountains Forever. The target audience was U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu’s staff and the general public. It shows a series of proposed protections: expansion of the existing San Gabriel National Monument, a new National Recreation Area, expansion of several existing wilderness areas along with 6 new wilderness proposals, and several new wild and scenic rivers. The goal was to create a map highlighting these proposals with a clean modern look.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: This was created with the QGIS nightlies, which last fall was version 2.99. This gave me a chance to check out some of the new emerging features coming with version 3. The proposal data was digitized using QGIS. The Stamen Terrain basemap is being seen through a similarly colored State boundary layer employing some transparency and the multiply blending mode. Existing wilderness and proposals also employ the multiply blending mode. Wilderness areas were obtained from Wilderness.net and highways were sourced from CalTrans. Highways were styled as white lines so that they would fall to the background. They look better digitally than in print form…is a map ever done? Cities were shown simply as labels.
Rachel Stevenson is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Denver and an active member in #GISTribe. Rachel currently works for the United States Geological Survey as a Pathways Intern, where she works on The National Map Corps, a citizen science program that collects structure types for the USGS National Map. Rachel is currently working on developing Interactive web maps for the National Map Corps and hopes to build her skills in development.
Rachel was interviewed for GeoHipster by Todd Barr.
Q: Why Geographic Information Systems?
A: In 2012 I was completing my undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice and I took a course entitled Crime Analysis, and it was this class where I learned about ArcGIS and databases and it was also during that class where I learned that I was good at creating maps and working with data. However it wasn’t until 2014 when I moved to Colorado that I decided to take an Intro to GIS Course to see if I was indeed good at it and more importantly, if I liked it. It turns out, I am good at it and I love it!
Q: You’re really active on social media. How do you think social media, specifically Twitter, has influenced you on your path?
A: I don’t quite recall how I found #gistribe on Twitter, but when I did, I found this whole community of very smart and intelligent people who wanted to share their knowledge and their passion for geospatial science. In finding this awesome community, I was able to learn and grow in so many ways both academically and personally. By starting with #gistribe I’ve been able to network and become friends with various different geo types and learn from them. It has been such a benefit to hear about new technology and to get feedback from people I look up to and idolize.
Q: You were recently elected to URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet (congratulations). What prompted you to run for this?
A: Aly Ollivierre, a colleague of mine from Maptime and the larger geospatial community, suggested that I apply for it. I’ve known about URISA and the Vanguard Cabinet for a while and was familiar with their work, so I applied because I think I’ve seen a lot of growth in myself over the last 3 years and am now in a place to be able to give back to the next generation of geospatial students, and that is an exciting opportunity.
Q: I work with a bunch of students, but you’re one of the few who are active in the FOSS4G community. What do you attribute this to?
A: I attribute this to the #gistribe. Anything that I’ve wanted to do but was unsure about, the tribe has always been super supportive of. Seeing other members of the #gistribe give presentations and workshops about an interesting topic has really inspired me to give presentations and to try and work hard in order to grow in this field.
Q: Since you’re just starting out in the big wide world of Spatial, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A: I would like to build my developer skills in Python, R and SQL as well as increase my understanding of databases in order to become a lead data scientist for NASA. When I first started out in geospatial science I was amazed at how vast and wide this industry is. Geospatial science and location data are applicable to everything. This includes NASA; I think a lot of people, when they hear the word “NASA” they think space exploration and science. But NASA does so much more than that, they also explore and answer questions related to problems we are having here on Earth. Their work is far reaching and I’d like to be a part of that.
Q: You’re active in the Unitarian Church, how do you think GIS could help solve a problem that Church faces?
A: I think Geospatial Science could be used to show Unitarian Universalists what impact they are having in conducting social justice work throughout their communities. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has a data science component, and one thing I think they could benefit from is adding a geospatial aspect to understanding where Unitarian Universalist are located throughout the US.
Q: Favorite projection and why?
A: When I first got started in geo, a friend of mine gave me a book entitled “Spaceship Manual for Planet Earth” by Buckminster Fuller, who designed the Fuller or Dymaxion projection. So my favorite projection is the Fuller Projection because it was the first projection I was introduced to as a geography student. I have never used it in any of my projects, either professional or personal, but maybe one day I’ll find a need for it.
Q: What is the one technology you wish you could master overnight?
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster?
A: YES! I love being early to geo-centric technologies and related things happening in the community while also being able to share these same technologies with the students I work with.
A: My undergrad studies started out all over the place, and I had no idea what GIS even was until I was almost through with college. As a freshman I studied graphic design, following a lifelong interest in all things visual. But after the first year I got interested in photography, but shortly thereafter I switched majors again, this time to computer science. I briefly considered what graduate school in comp sci might be like before being a little “homesick” from more artistic work; design, ultimately, was where my heart was.
During my junior year I stumbled upon a thing called Geographic Information Science in the list of majors at Michigan State University. Analysis and design, with a side of engineering? I changed my major that semester and have been hooked ever since.
While I bounced around between those majors, the bits and pieces I picked up were like little drops of experience that coalesced into the perfect preparation for a career in cartography and visualization. I didn’t know it at the time, but I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.
Q: What do you do for NASA? Please describe your typical day on the job.
A: I sort of wear two hats. To tell a new visual story every day, I have to quickly analyze data, create maps and charts, and help our editorial team craft articles to communicate Earth science, primarily from or related to NASA missions. I am always scrambling to get or find data and then visualize it the best I can in a very short amount of time.
Over the longer term and in-between the daily articles, I lead the development of our style guide that establishes the overall look and feel of Earth Observatory visuals. This involves defining typographic styles, color palettes, base maps, and workflows. The workflows could be anything from a set of scripts to tutorials that enable us to go from raw data to public-ready graphics in an intuitive and consistent way.
Our bread-and-butter publication is the Image of The Day, which we put out 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So my typical day usually involves creating one or more visualizations to ensure that keeps happening, while carving out time to refine our style, identify new data sources, learn new technologies, or develop tools to help our team quickly publish press-ready visuals.
Q: Your PhD thesis is titled “Cues and Affordances in Cartographic Interaction”. Could you tell us about your research, and what spurred you to focus on this particular topic? Does what you learned feed into your work at NASA?
A: This research was a lot of fun! I was primarily interested in how to communicate varying “layers” of interactivity within maps. Sometimes a map symbol might only reveal a tooltip, while other features allow analytical functions, queries, or other capabilities. Some symbology has no interactivity at all. That’s information that should be clear to the user, and the visual design of map symbols can help clue users in to whether or not (or how much) a symbol is interactive.
I started my PhD before the major UI shift toward flat design, which was a good time to have a front-row seat to the backlash that followed that trend becoming commonplace. Early popular skeuomorphic designs were a bit heavy-handed with aesthetic ornamentation. As a response, designers sort of swung (too far) in the opposite direction: many interfaces became so flat that buttons were not distinguished from other design elements. This sort of design philosophy gives people chicken hands: they are constantly pecking, trying to discover which elements on screen can be clicked.
I wanted to humanize that experience, enabling users to do more thinking and less pecking.
My research was predicated on the belief that there’s a sweet spot in the middle: many, many interfaces could benefit from subtle cues that make interactive UI components a bit more obvious.
This research helped me think more clearly about hierarchies and designing with a purpose. Every map or visualization is a layering of information, and even if there’s no interactivity in a graphic, there’s still a competition for your attention and focus. Careful design ensures the viewer is drawn to the important bits, without totally removing less important elements. I like maps that communicate a key point quickly, then draw you in, revealing more insight as you study them.
Even if your fingers aren’t pecking a screen in different spots, your eyes might be. Good design settles things down and enables readers to focus on—or be guided to—the important information.
Q: There’s a lot of kids out there who want to work for NASA someday (including my own), although most of them are probably dreaming about space shuttles. If NASA has data visualization and cartography jobs, how wide does the variety get?
A: The variety is out of this world! (That was lame, wasn’t it? But it’s true!) You’ll find people working as everything from biologists to seamstresses at NASA.
I work in the Earth Science Division, and while the exact job title of “cartographer” is not a thing as far as I know — I don’t even have it — there’s an enormous amount of geospatial analysis and mapping going on. A lot of colleagues of mine have backgrounds in other fields — oceanography, geology, etc. — but we all make maps with the same data (perhaps with different software; the geologists really love GMT). But if it happens on Earth, NASA probably has an instrument that measures it, and handfuls of people with diverse expertise analyzing it and mapping it.
Q: What kind of technology do you use on the job? Mostly open source, or mostly proprietary, or an even mix?
A: It’s a mix. I’m a bit of a generalist: I use what gets the job done. That said, it is with some privilege that I am able to make those sorts of decisions. If there’s software out there, paid or otherwise, I probably have access to it.
That said, my go-tos by and large tend to be open source. GDAL is the real MVP of my workflow, and I use QGIS daily.
My top 5 most-used tools include QGIS/GDAL, Photoshop, After Effects, Python (with matplotlib, pandas, and NumPy), and Bash.
Q: Which systems are the most common sources of satellite imagery for your work?
A: We like to show things in true color when we can; readers really enjoy seeing satellite imagery that is as easy to understand as a photograph. That places a lot of emphasis on MODIS, VIIRS, and Landsat imagery.
Q: How often is it that a new system or source of imagery becomes available?
A: All the time! While the instrument construction projects and big launches make the news a few times a year, there are thousands of scientists around the globe developing new data from all the satellites already in orbit. Algorithms are improved, data sources are combined, and new applications emerge almost around the clock.
Q: Your website has dozens of examples of beautiful and informative maps. I’m guessing it takes quite a bit of work to pull the data together into a publishable product. Can you give us an example of a workflow, going from raw satellite data to polished map?
A: Thanks! I appreciate that.
One thing I have to admit being most proud of is that these projects are done super quickly. We publish daily, so I often only have a few hours, maybe 12 hours for larger stories, to get all the data that goes into something, process it, analyze it and find the story, and then design a map (or other visuals). In the last three years, there’s only one project that I worked on for longer than a week, which was the 2012 and 2016 updates to NASA’s Black Marble maps of nighttime lights.
The biggest effort has gone into developing the styles and workflows that make it possible to publish these visualizations so quickly.
I recently tweeted an example of a map coming together. The final map ended up as part of a piece on the Channeled Scablands. The basic steps for producing the imagery for this story were to:
Generate a best-pixel mosaic of the area using five years of Landsat data in Google Earth Engine. While that was running:
Download SRTM data for the area and merge the tiles with gdal_merge.py
Hillshade the elevation data in QGIS (or GDAL)
Color-correct and reproject the finished Landsat mosaic
Blend the Landsat data with the hillshade
Finish the map up with boundaries, water bodies, and labels, export for the web
To get even more out of the data, I also used the Landsat mosaic and elevation data to render a true color view at an oblique angle. The whole story finishes with a recent, individual Landsat scene. (You can read about how to color-correct and pan-sharpen Landsat scenes in tutorials from me and Rob Simmon.)
That all came together in about four hours. There’s always so much more I wish I could do with imagery, but our tight deadlines force us to be quick and lean.
Q: You’re a moderator for the esteemed Reddit community Data Is Beautiful. Last time I logged in there were 12+ million subscribers. How long have you been moderating, and what exactly does moderating entail?
A: I’ve been moderating Data Is Beautiful since early 2014. Geeze, thinking back, it is hard to believe I am the second longest running mod in the subreddit. Back then we had about 50,000 subscribers and we were not a default shown to all visitors. We’d see maybe one popular post a week. It has grown quite a bit, and that has been awesome to witness over the years. We now have subscribers posting insanely well-done work that makes the front page of the entire site almost daily.
Each mod contributes to keeping things organized and spam-free, but most take on a labor of love depending on their interests. Early on I established the CSS design for the subreddit and our visual flair system to separate different types of posts. Other mods organize AMAs, run contests, or code up sweet bots that quantify the number of original content (OC) pieces a user has posted.
These days I am not super active as a mod; we’ve brought on a bunch of fantastic mods that really keep the sub running and growing.
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipster traits we should know about?
A: I spend a lot of time playing with my kid (4). We’re really into Lego right now (see that, Ken? No ‘s’). My wife made the mistake of giving me Monster Hunter: World as a gift, and I haven’t been able to put it down.
I am looking forward to getting back into fishing this spring and summer. That’s a hobby I’ve neglected recently and I can’t wait to get back into it.
If a beard, a love of craft beer, and a fixed-gear bike are the criteria, I might be a hipster on paper. But in real life, I’m less like The Decemberists and more like Dexter (the awkward part, not all the other stuff…)
Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A:. Even though I use a lot of tools that might not be mainstream, I don’t see that as a goal or accomplishment that sets me apart. These are things that just help me do the job I need to do. So I wouldn’t say so, but maybe others might.
I’m also a bit wary (and weary) of an over-emphasis on the tools used by cartographers and the GIS community. How those tools are used, and the goals they achieve, is much more important. There’s a bit of a ‘library name drop culture’ on social media, where a long list of tech and libraries will be highlighted, and then it’s like “oh, and by the way this app ensured the four-pronged butterfly did not go extinct.”
That’s wrong, and we as a community should strive to fix that. There are social media accounts devoted to bashing this file format or that software. Why? That’s as useful as posting instagram photos of food you plan not to eat.
It was Michelangelo, not chisel brand X, who made David.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: “[You] absolutely have to have dark in order to have light. Gotta have opposites, dark and light, light and dark, continually in painting. If you have light on light, you have nothing. If you have dark on dark, you basically have nothing. It’s like in life: you gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.” –Bob Ross
The State Plane Coordinate System is comprised of 120+ geographic zones across the US. The system, developed in the 1930s by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, is a commonly used mapping standard for government agencies and those who work with them.
There’s a website that I’ve had bookmarked for as long as I can remember. It’s simply a list of State Plane zones and the US counties that fall within each. At the top of the page are state links that redirect further down on the site, but I rarely use those. I usually just cmd+f and search for the county I’m looking for. Even if I know the zone already, the site gives me a sense of security when I’m making a map that uses the US-based coordinate system – like the feeling one gets when going back to double check that the stove is off and the door is locked.
There are most certainly other ways to look up State Plane zones, but this one, hosted on a stranger’s personal website, is the one I like best. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the site, its Web 1.0 design, the fact that the person who made it picked tan for the background color. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of going back to something I’ve used time and time again, and always has what I want – like a well-loved t-shirt.
A while back, I went to the State Plane site only to find the site could no longer be reached. Russell Edward Taylor, III, experienced something similar, but instead of chalking it up as a mystery like I did, got in touch with the owner, Rick King, and asked about hosting the site on his own domain. Lucky for those of us who’ve relied on it as a useful reference, it continues to live on on Russell’s personal website. Russell also did some investigating and found nearly 400 links to the State Plane site from across the geospatial community, from universities to professionals to students. Inspired by his initiative, I decided to reach out to Russell, who put me in touch with Rick, to learn about the site’s story.
Q: Rick, thank you for creating the State Plane site. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and why you created the site?
A: I am currently retired having worked in GIS and Land Surveying since the 1980s. I was a Professional Land Surveyor licensed in Utah with most of my “experience” being while working in Indianapolis, Indiana, and ending after a 4-year stint working as a GIS Analyst in Los Alamos, New Mexico, documenting some hazardous waste remediation on a material disposal area that was used at the time of the Manhattan Project. I also helped with the development of an Acequia GIS for the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District in Taos, New Mexico.
My initial work in GIS was to allocate mapping resources to provide the base layers for large regional geographic information systems being developed primarily by the various utility companies. In the pre-internet days this work was accomplished by telephone inquiry starting at a state geological office or somewhere to see if there was any existing mapping available. GIS has evolved since then, but, just wanted to throw that in to let people know that GIS was existing before the world wide web.
I created the site as a reference for myself to help me at work. In the course of my work I received hundreds of datasets most all of which came without metadata and without any identification of the coordinate system on which they were based. The website I created in basic HTML would give me starting points to make the coordinate system identification. At the time of its creation, there really wasn’t anything else online to fulfill the need. I wanted to reference both the NAD 27 and NAD 83 systems, and found those references listed in the state statutes when I could find them online. The UTM references and the MS Excel spreadsheet were added later.
The state plane coordinate system page was part of a multi-part GIS reference page titled “GIS Landbase Information and Data Links”, which provided weblinks to the same.
The awful tan color of the background was carefully chosen for providing less eye-strain.
I hosted the site for many years as my contribution to the internet.
Q: Russell found almost 400 links to the State Plane page on other websites. Did you realize the site was being used by so many others in the geospatial community?
A: I did. It was Comcast’s decision to withdraw hosting personal web pages which is why it went down.
Q: When did you create the site? Looking at it now, is there anything you would change?
A: I created the site in 1999, and most of its creation is covered in the metadata I created for the page. Actually, I was one of the first people to quit using the page, so changes would have to be made by someone else.
Q: What was your reaction when Russell reached out about hosting the site. Were you surprised at all?
A: I was hoping that someone would step up and host the page as there were some educational institutions using it as a reference. A big thanks to Russell for stepping forward.
Q: Now being retired from a long career in land surveying, what do you do with your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?
A: I spend a good deal of time day trading on the stock markets. The goal is to grow my retirement funds specifically so that I can afford to build a new house. Yep, that’s the goal!
Q: A geohipster is someone who works anywhere along the broad spectrum of geospatial data and applications. Usually they’re described as being on the outskirts of mainstream GIS, thinking outside of the box, and doing something interesting with maps. Would you call yourself a geohipster? Why or why not.
A: No, I just never got involved with the analytics of GIS to get that excited about it. But…
Q: Rick, thank you for your contributions to the geospatial community, and for helping bring well-documented GIS resources online throughout your career. Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave with our global readership?
A: The world has become so dynamic. Everything is changing. People and politics, the environment, business and trade, and world economies. GIS is the only science that is capable of accumulating all the data, visualizing the data, comprehending the data, and finally using the data to forecast future models that will benefit us all. Population management, food management, resource management will be extremely vital in the near future. There will be plenty of opportunities to resolve what most of us believe are foreseeable problems, especially having clean water and adequate food for everyone.
Russell Edward Taylor, III
Q: From your resume, I see that you’re a Senior GeoSpatial Analyst at CoreLogic. Could you tell us a bit about what you do there?
A: I’m part of a group that works on a suite of data products used by clients for location intelligence. It’s based on a standardized, nationwide parcel dataset derived from point and polygon data acquired in every data format, attribute layout, and projection under the sun. Taken together, our little team likely has more experience than anyone with the quirks of the many different ways parcel mapping is done. I’m on the more technical end these days, maintaining internal tools in Python, preparing custom data deliveries for clients, managing our metadata and documentation, plus a variety of internal process-improvement initiatives that have immersed me in the database world more than I ever imagined possible when I got into GIS in the late 90s.
Q: When did you realize the State Plane site was no longer live, and what inspired you to reach out to Rick?
A: It was in July 2015; a colleague brought it to my attention when they went looking for the state plane zone of a county they were working with. After I hurriedly cached a copy from the Internet Archive for use by my team and myself, it occured to me that there were probably others out there wrestling with similar data that would miss it too. I have a personal website, and since the State Plane site is just one simple page, I realized that it would be very easy for me to keep it available to the world. Over the years, I’ve benefited greatly from the community-mindedness of others, so it seemed like a good way to do my part.
Personally, I favor open software, data, and public licenses that make works more widely available for use, but I’m also aware that not everyone does. Rather than take the risk of running afoul of an unknown benefactor by re-hosting the site without permission, I decided to do it by the book. I thought it was especially important to do it that way for two reasons: first, it would be a full, verbatim copy, and not anything that might fall under fair use if I ever had to defend it; second, if I republished it without a notice at the original URL, those who had been using it might have a harder time finding their way to its new home. So, after gathering a bit of courage, I shot off a short message that happily found a friendly response.
Q: Have you received any notes from others who’ve found the state plane site on ret3.net?
A: I have, at a rate of a few each year. Most are simple thank yous from visitors glad to find it still alive somewhere. Most emails come from businesses domains, almost as many from .edu accounts. I’ve had a couple interesting ones that led to a little research about parts of the page I’d never used for myself, most memorably as to just what an ADSZONE is.
Q: Enlighten us?
A: Oddly, I received not one but two questions about this within a few months of each other in late 2016. As near as I can tell, ADSZONE stands for Automated Digitizing System Zone, named for the tool the Bureau of Land Management used to convert NAD 27 maps to NAD 83, along with other subsequent projects, and the regions used for that project. Now knowing more about Rick’s experience, the inclusion of this bit of information makes more sense! If you’re curious (or very, very bored, although there is some fine early 90s clipart to be seen therein) the manual is online here: https://archive.org/details/automateddigitiz00unit. I don’t believe this numbering system is used very widely anymore, although in the surveying business (the field of both of my interlocutors on this topic), encountering disused references is pretty common.
Q: When you’re not being a geospatial analyst, what do you like to do in your spare time? From your website I glean that beyond maps, you also like comics and bikes.
A: I got my start reading comics with my dad’s Silver Age DC collection, but fell out with constant reboots of the modern era, so these days I’m far more likely to pick up self-contained stories, or at least serials that aren’t under pressure to run forever. Of course, I’ve always had a weakness for maps in comics: the World of Kamandi, Krypton, Marvel’s New York City, Prison Island and other small-town memoir settings, even the dotted-line paths in Family Circus.
I’ve been a daily bike commuter for 8 years (and 110 pounds), following a 25-year hiatus from pedaling. I ride a modest 5 miles round trip on my commuter bike, plus weekend trailriding on my mountain bike and recently longer road bike events. Interestingly, all my bikes are folding models. Although it’s not closely related to my professional niche in geography, planning, land use, and transit issues have always fascinated me, more so since bike infrastructure became a rather personal concern!
I also enjoy Austin’s energetic music and craft brewing scenes, with friends in the former (go see Danger*Cakes, Bird Casino, and Oh Antonio & His Imaginary Friends!) and my neighborhood being taken over by the latter, which happens to combine well with cycling.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: That’s hard to say; most of my work is not what would come to mind for that label — it’s pretty traditional and desktop-oriented, working with shapefiles in proprietary software, focused on fundamentals of data integrity for the end user. GeoNormcore, perhaps. The GeoJSON, FOSS4G, webmapped world is something I encounter mostly at conferences and in occasional at-home dabblings. That said, I am planning a Dymaxion tattoo, so perhaps I have a bit of geohipster in me after all.
Q: Any final words of wisdom you’d like to leave with us?
A: Although I always have to remind myself of it when the opportunity arises, folks are far more willing to help and collaborate than you’d think. Muster your gumption, screw up your courage, steel your nerves and ask nicely. I know it works on me.