Morgan Herlocker is an open source software developer and creator of the Turf distributed geospatial analysis framework. He has worked on mapping and statistics software across the geo industry, from consumer navigation to citizen counter-surveillance. Morgan has been a vocal advocate for user privacy in the design of location telemetry systems.
Q: I really enjoyed your talk on location privacy at SOTMUS in Minneapolis last September. In December, the NY Times did an article on this very topic. Do you think this will continue to crop up in news media in the future?
A: We’re living in a moment when authorities are asking for more location data than ever through contact tracing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, millions of people are out in the streets demanding that our officials abolish discriminatory policing practices that have explicitly targeted BIPOC communities across all US cities. The tension is palpable and people are asking “If I give officials access to my trips, will they use it against me or my neighbors in the future?” Privacy is a personal safety issue, a civil liberties issue, and a public health issue all in one, and it will be front and center as our society grapples with the underlying inequities that are increasingly front and center in this moment.
Q: Can you tell us how you managed to get into mapping and/or GIS?
A: It was a bit of an accident. I was always interested in computer graphics and data processing, but was mostly focused on audio, statistics, and game engines at first. In 2013, I started the Turf project to build a toolset that would make crunching geographic data easier and faster. At the time, I hardly knew how to make a map, knew little about data visualization, and did not even know what a GIS was. I came in with a healthy dose of naivete about how geo software could or should work. I wanted it to be more like the web – more like Unix, and was surprised to find a huge movement of people at Mapbox and elsewhere who were working towards the same thing. The Turf project hugely benefited from the contributors I met at Mapbox, and opened my eyes to the rest of the open mapping ecosystem.
Q: Do you think folks in our industry are more aware of location privacy issues than the general public? Or are we blissfully unaware, like some infosec experts who buy IOT devices?
A: Geo is a big industry. Some of us are actively complicit in the creation of these issues through working on ad tech and law enforcement tech, and it’s hard to claim that this is due to ignorance of the negative externalities. What we choose to work on is an expression of our values, and unsurprisingly, there is plenty of disagreement in this professional sphere. That said, privacy is almost trivially solvable on the technical side compared to the political front. We need to demand regulation that protects citizens and consumers from ubiquitous surveillance. These decisions should not be left to the whims of a police chief or a VP of marketing at BigCo. We are increasingly seeing state legislatures in the US addressing these issues, and I’m hopeful that we will see a federal response in the next several years.
Q: Do you think the current pandemic situation changes our tolerance for location privacy? Or will contact tracing have to be mandated in order to be effective?
A: Contact tracing is difficult to mandate and enforce in most constitutional democracies. Public agencies need to build a record at a small scale that shows they can be trusted to handle data at a large scale. Voluntary systems that extrapolate statistics across the entire populace seem more viable from both an adoption and effectiveness standpoint.
Q: Do you predict any adverse effects on the open data trend resulting from privacy issues? It’s only a matter of time before a whole “portal” gets taken offline as an overreaction, right?
A: It could happen. Some of the privacy disclosures I have made resulted in a portal being taken down for a few days, patched, then brought back online. This is the ideal situation, but I could imagine smaller teams deciding to drop sharing data entirely. While that would be unfortunate, being realistic about the resources required to maintain a system that includes personally identifying information is critical. If a dataset isn’t safe for sharing, it should not be on the internet. Often, this is mandated by existing laws and regulations, especially for government agencies in certain US states.
Q: Outside of location privacy, what else excited you about our industry? Any interesting projects you want to share?
A: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is my “must watch” for geo tech this year. Is it a map? Is it a GIS? I’m not sure, but it clearly sets a new bar for how I think about cartography and providing spatial context to users.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I’m really into gardening for food and flowers using the concepts of permaculture and closed loop systems. I’ve also been using the extra alone time during the pandemic to brush up on my jazz guitar chops. I try to follow my interests and don’t draw hard lines between professional and personal hobbies.
Q: What do you think has defined “the geohipster” over the last decade? Will this change in the 2020s?
A: A fundamental, at times borderline irrational, belief that empowered communities can solve challenging problems through collaboration without a central extractive authority. The groups in the geo software industry with the most lasting success have made this real by fostering community, designing for sustainability, and investing in getting the usability details right. That won’t change anytime soon.
Q: Any parting words of wisdom for our readers? A:“Geo” is often used as a catchall industry for people making maps for a particular narrow set of purposes. This leads to less diverse teams and less useful software. Look for ideas and talented people in adjacent industries that do similar work with a different label. If we think about geo as a skill set that includes anyone pushing the limits of computational geometry, there are far more avenues for development. If we think about geography as a skill set for understanding the arrangement of human infrastructure, we can learn from people with non-traditional backgrounds like real estate or delivery logistics. There is so much untapped potential in the field, but we need to do the work to recruit and welcome these contributors.
A: I started my career as a shovelbum, digging holes and mapping Fort Ancient Indian villages in West Virginia. We used survey equipment to inform the hand drawn maps, but one day I went into the office and someone had turned my hand drawn map into an image on a computer. My imagination caught fire. I’ve been a sociologist since I was 5 years old, noting and questioning patterns I saw in the ways humans behave and organize themselves. I knew that GIS would give me a foundational set of hard skills to build a career doing what interested me most — thinking about and studying group behavior. I looked for people who were using maps to study living people and current problems, and I found critical mentorship in them.
Since then I’ve used spatial analytics to research and inform policy makers and non-profit groups on issues around homelessness, justice reform and crime, education inequality, housing discrimination, and historical predicates of current racial and ethnic inequality. I’ve been working in voting rights for years now. I draw maps for redistricting, but that’s only a sliver of what spatial folks can do in this field. I use spatial analyses to support the work of the civil rights lawyers ensuring compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I use the same types of analyses to support the work of advocates who want to understand voting and demographic patterns.
We need more spatially-minded people working on civil rights and social justice issues. This is a serious issue throughout the civil rights space but is particularly acute in voting rights. I invite folks who are either starting or re-inventing their careers to think about contributing their skills and considering this path. Please reach out to me via Twitter (@DocGallJr) if you want to explore ideas, ask questions about the nitty gritty of the work, or just chat about this type of spatial work. I’m always happy to talk shop.
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: One day a friend asked me for a map of Prince shows. This was obviously a great idea. I’d used the final data set for several iterations of a Tableau viz (the latest, not quite done version here), but I also wanted to use these data for a static image because it presents new and interesting challenges for visualization. I’d been working with these data for years now, so this was a new take on how to use them. The GeoHipster calendar seemed like the perfect impetus and avenue for that goal.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: I originally consulted two unofficial tour listings from princetourhistory and princevault. I geocoded shows to the venue. When a venue address wasn’t available, I geocoded to the city – the only other geography I had. Because of that, I had to add some jitter to the mapped data. I used R programming and the tmap package, by Tennekes et al, for the final product. I initially tried to make the map with the ggplot2 package, by Wickham et al, but had more aesthetic control with tmap so switched over at some point in the creation process. Although I was trained in GUI based GISystems, I taught myself to code in R several years ago because it adheres to the notion of scientific reproducibility in ways that GUI GISystems can’t. This map took about 50 lines of code – fully reproducible. Again, an invite, I’d love to hash out the differences between ggplot2, tmap, leaflet, and other spatial packages in R. Please reach out if that sounds like a great time to you, too!
Mike Dolbow is a GIS Coordinator at a small state agency and your classic Jack of All Trades (Master of None).
Mike was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS? Would you do it all over again given the chance?
A: Like a decent percentage of my peers, I fell into GIS fairly accidentally. While pursuing a forestry degree at the University of New Hampshire, I took an aerial photography class where the professor gave us each an aerial photo of campus for lab exercises. My mind was blown: here, for the very first time, I was presented with relatable geography. I could see my dorm, class buildings, sidewalks, and shortcuts. It wasn’t the abstract geography of grade school, it was my favorite road map on steroids. That same professor encouraged me to take his GIS course, and I loved that even more, becoming his first TA the following year.
After graduating, I tried to find work in forestry nearby, but couldn’t. I waited tables for 6 months, then got a half-time GIS job at a small regional planning commission, where I met my future wife. That job soon became full time and suddenly a 20+ year career had begun.
Armed with today’s wisdom and a time machine back to my senior year, I might make a few tweaks to my path, but I wouldn’t change the fundamentals. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have worked in three corners of the country, where I’ve benefited from the efforts of amazing teachers and mentors.
Q: Describe your typical day at work (pre-isolation).
A: I like to say that GIS is the perfect endeavor for me, because it lets me exercise both analytical and creative skills, and that keeps boredom forever at bay. That dichotomy exists in other parts of my life: I’m extroverted at work (and play), but introverted at home. I’m a creature of routine for daily activities, but enjoy having each work day be different than the last.
So I don’t really have a typical day at work, and that’s the way I like it. Pre-isolation wasn’t much different than teleworking; turn on the laptop, address email, then plan out my day against my to-do list and the rare meetings I have. I only get tasked on projects once in a while, so I devote most of my time to operational work: keeping data current, maintaining application and database code, and making maps that people need to perform their jobs. However, even though I’ve been in my current job since October, I have a feeling I’m still in a honeymoon period and things will ramp up and down as the year progresses.
Q: You have been a government worker for most of your career. How much room is really there for innovation in government? Is there more room for technological innovation or in process innovation? Asking for a friend.
A: I have definitely felt the pain I imagine “your friend” is having! I can really only speak from my experience, and the answer of course is “it depends”. I’ve been really lucky in that my average job has typically allowed me somewhere between 5 and 20% of my time for “innovation”. I put that in quotes because, lets face it, a typical government worker isn’t going to invent the next Facebook or SpaceX. But we might take some tried-and-true technology and make a process leaner or a service more inclusive.
During the early stages of my career, I spent that 5-20% of time doing outreach, collaboration, or community efforts, which established extremely valuable relationships. When you can build relationships within a culture of sharing data, expertise, and information, it doesn’t take long before you’re applying those shared resources to own your work. And at some point, you’ve got enough experience that “innovating” is just being the first one to make small tweaks that can make big differences.
But I have worked in really large bureaucracies where big budgets and red tape have crushed the appetite for innovation. And I’ve worked in really small organizations where all you can do is keep your head above water from all the operations and projects that need immediate attention. I’ve found the best results in places that are a happy middle, especially where they have flexible customers. Those are the folks that are willing to occasionally sacrifice 10 or 20 percent of “billable hours” in exchange for staying on top of current technologies, constantly improving processes, and retaining the employees who are thereby engaged.
So I truly believe there is room for innovation in government. If I have a motto, it’s that I love maps and I hate waste. Putting those two together has often made me a “change agent” who strives to make things better with the powers of geography and technology. I haven’t always succeeded, but I’ve always been satisfied with the pursuit.
Q: From your tweets I gather that you love QGIS and Postgres, while firmly planted in the Esri camp. How is that symbiosis working for you? Does it trigger a split personality?
A: I think it works just fine, and symbiosis is a decent way to describe it. I love QGIS’s Atlas composer, all the fine-grained options for labeling and cartography, and the fantastically configurable data tables. PostgreSQL taught me a lot about spatial database functions that I still use in my new job (with SQL Server). But I also love working with Esri’s REST API (I even wrote a tutorial around it!), frequently do rapid app prototyping with ArcGIS Online, and rely on their cloud infrastructure for several functions.
As I alluded to earlier, this isn’t the only thing about me that seems contradictory, at least on the surface. But I think it’s my natural resources background that helps me resolve this supposed conflict. I see natural systems as vastly more complex than anything man-made we encounter day-to-day, and so trying to describe them with blanket assumptions or black-and-white decision criteria is folly.
And that’s how I see my approach to my work: it’s not “Esri vs. FOSS”, it’s both, depending on the situation. It’s not just using the right tool for the job, it’s making sure you know the capabilities, pros, and cons of those tools so you can put the right one in play, at the right time, for the right reasons. Only by maintaining that fundamental knowledge can technologists bring true value to the organizations they support.
Q: You are the GeoHipster CEO. What can GeoHipster fans expect from the publication in the future? Any coming attractions?
A: I wish I had a good answer for this, especially since GeoHipster has opened up so many opportunities for me. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to go on the Mapscaping podcast or cover the 2019 State of the Map US conference. And I know I wouldn’t have gotten to know all the cool people I’ve interviewed over the past five years without the work you started back in 2013.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a crystal ball reader or “idea guy”; instead, I’ve been a good steward of someone else’s ideas. That’s pretty much what I’ve done with GeoHipster; taking your brilliant idea and keeping it functioning as a sustainable independent company. But I can tell you that I’m excited by a few things, like transitioning our merchandising to RedBubble and welcoming interviews generated by “newer” authors like Kurt Menke and Natasha Pirani. And I have a few potential “business-to-business” cooperative ventures that might open us to new audiences. But I want to make sure that we keep the elements of independence, contrarian thinking, and self-deprecating humor that have made us a hallmark of the geo-web for over six years. It’s been great fun, and I just want to keep spreading that fun far and wide.
Q: We are doing this interview amid the COVID-19 epidemic, mandated social distancing, and work from home. However, many in the geofield are no strangers to #WFH, having been working from home for years. Do you think that once this epidemic is over it will have proven that WFH is, well… workable?
A: I sure as hell hope so. I myself have never worked from home full time until now, and outside of the general anxiety that comes with living through a global pandemic, I love the change. The commute is easier, I get more sleep and exercise, and I can focus on my work a lot more. I do miss the occasional office chat, but I don’t miss getting into a car (or a bus) five days a week.
Maybe it’s the loner Gen X in me, but I’ve never struggled with the WFH concept. Unless we’re talking about the kind of place where everyone hates their job, I implicitly trust folks to get their work done. Anyone who’s not professional enough to handle working on their own at home isn’t going to be any “more productive” in an office. And what kind of supervisor has the time to constantly look over the shoulders of their employees and “make sure they’re working”? The kind I don’t want to work for, that’s what kind.
I know there’s a lot of prerequisites to making it workable. People need good internet speeds at home, and the organization has to be able to issue employees equipment like a laptop and typically VPN connectivity. But these obstacles are relatively easy to overcome; a lack of fundamental trust between employee and employer is NOT.
I’m lucky I have that trust currently, and I’m hoping I can stay home “permanently” after this pandemic is over. And I hope it becomes a new normal for a lot of the workforce, because the overall benefits to our culture, environment, and society will be worth it. I’ve seen a lot of folks warn leaders not to judge teleworking as a whole based on this experience, because folks aren’t going to be as productive as normal when they’re worried about the pandemic. So I hope managers and supervisors take that into consideration when we’re ready to move on.
Q: You play bass in a band — “j. bell & the Lazy Susan Band”. You make records and play live shows. I have listened to your music on Spotify and YouTube, and I quite like it. How did you get into music, and how did you make bass guitar your axe of choice?
A: Thanks for the compliments and the plug! This is another part of my life where I’m incredibly fortunate; must be because I’m half Irish.
I’ve always loved music, since I was a little kid singing along to everything from “The Gambler” to “Thriller”. My mom recognized that about me early on and pushed me to join the school band in the 5th grade. I took three years of saxophone lessons, which laid a decent foundation of music theory for me. I quit in junior high because I just wasn’t having fun with it.
My mom kept buying me cheap little keyboards that I would goof around on, but I still hadn’t discovered an instrument that I loved. That changed when I found a classical guitar in my basement that had been left behind by a family friend. I brought it to several buddies who knew how to play and asked each of them to show me some chords and explain the tuning. I wrote my first “song” within a week, and then I was hooked.
I continued to learn, write songs, and get better for several years, even starting a few crummy bands in college, but I never really excelled as a guitarist. My senior year I started a band called “The Roadies” with two other guitar players, and we all agreed that one of us should just play bass. We each tried it, and I had the best feel for it, so I stuck with it.
I consider that a stroke of luck, because I don’t think I was ever going to have the chops to be a lead guitarist for a band I liked. In contrast, to be a “good enough” rock bassist, you really don’t have to be flashy or virtuosic. You just have to play the root note of the chord in time with the drummer, and that’s never been too difficult for me. Of course, to be a really good rock bassist, you have to live and breathe “in the pocket”, and serve as the glue for your band. At that level, it’s a completely different instrument than a six string guitar. I’m not there yet, but I’ve steadily improved at the craft to the point where my bandmates are noticing. I’m really proud of that, because I’m easily the least talented guy in my current band! I feel super lucky to be part of a group that makes music I enjoy listening to, and that we get to share it with the world.
At least, when there’s not a pandemic going on! We picked a really bad day – April 4th – to release our latest record, so we’re struggling to recover our costs right now. If our readers wouldn’t mind taking a listen to our new record in iTunes or maybe even buying it directly from us, I would love it.
Q: You are a beer aficionado, which is a common trait among geofolk. Do you brew your own? What is your favorite local brew? How do you explain the fascination of geogeeks with microbrews?
A: I could talk way too long about beer! I’ve never brewed my own, but my roommate in college did, and that’s when I first started appreciating craft brews. My tastes have evolved over the years, but now I pretty much know that there’s only a handful of styles I don’t enjoy. Minnesota is blessed with a ton of amazing brewers, so it’s hard to name a favorite. My favorite style is an IPA, so let’s just pick Surly’s “Wet”, a fresh-hopped beer that only comes out in the fall and I find simply delicious.
I don’t know why geogeeks in general are fascinated with micro brews. I think some of it is coincident demographics: our industry is dominated by white dudes and what do white dudes like, if not craft beer? But that’s just playing the numbers. It’s more fun to guess: I think geographers have an appreciation for nuance, attention to detail, craftsmanship, locally-made products, small businesses, and products that are appealing in multiple ways. For me, that adds up to craft beer, indie music, and Korean street tacos. For someone else, that might be a handmade canoe paddle or an acrylic painted trail map. But our era has been blessed with an abundance of brewers putting their work out there, and for that I’m grateful.
Q: Last but not least, you are a family man. You wear many hats — government worker, GeoHipster CEO, musician, family man… How do you manage to keep all the balls up in the air? Do you even sleep?
A: Actually I’ve never slept very well, so I have to put a big priority on it to even function. I typically dedicate about 8 hours to it every day, but because that’s not solid sleep, it’s probably the equivalent of 6 or 7 for someone else. If I get less than 6 for more than a few nights in a row I become useless.
The rest of my life is just about setting priorities. Obviously, family comes first. Then, the day job that pays the bills and keeps that family fed. After that, it’s the side gigs like GeoHipster and the Lazy Susan Band. I feel like I’m not giving either of those as much effort as I’d like, but that’s just reality. I do try to focus on only one of those at a time: right now, I’m all about the band because we have the new album out. In the fall each year, I spend a lot of time making sure the GeoHipster calendar gets compiled and loaded up so that folks can order it for holiday gifts. In between, it’s whatever bubbles up in priority at that moment.
And of course, we have to reveal the real secret: my wife is the “Household CEO” and she takes care of a boatload of things that keep my home running and my kids happy. We might as well be Ward and June Cleaver with the way we’ve split up the duties…except I do the dishes every night. But that’s peanuts compared to the work she does daily, and I am a very lucky man to have her in my corner. We’re also lucky that our kids are older and generally entertain themselves enough that we can have some time for our own interests.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If someone does a favor for you in your career journey, don’t try to pay them back. It sounds corny, but all they want from you is to see you pay it forward. I myself am trying extra hard lately to pay it forward to those with less privilege than I have, and I sincerely hope that makes a difference. How cool would it be if, 20 years from now, people were asking why geogeeks were fascinated with ugali instead of microbrews?
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?
Sahana Murthy is the General Manager of Loveland Technologies, where she manages the team, the product, and the overall corporate & marketing strategy. Prior to Loveland, Sahana had extensive experience working with software companies and startups of all sizes across USA & India. Over the years, she has worn multiple hats with roles ranging from a software developer, developer evangelist, product manager, and product marketer to most recently leading a startup as its COO.
Sahana was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.
Q: I’m told your current job is your first in the geospatial area. Tell us about your journey to get here and what drew you to this gig.
A: I have been in tech for over 10 years now. Started off as a techie working on proprietary software for a large tech conglomerate. I was lost in a sea of employees and techies, never fully knowing what value my work was adding to the larger scheme of things at the company. There was very little creativity and very little autonomy to my work. And then, one fine day, I discovered the magical work of open source and tech startups. That totally changed the trajectory of my career path and interests, in general. I haven’t looked back since. I have been working with tech startups in different industries and technologies from AI/ML to SaaS/PaaS to now a GIS software & data company. With every new gig, I have looked for a different technology and product suite and that’s what drew me to Loveland. The world of GIS and an incredible team that has tirelessly put together a comprehensive dataset of 143 million parcels across the US. No small feat!
Q: Loveland aims to be the place that all sorts of folks seek out for information on land parcels, and you’ve pieced together a nationwide dataset with pretty amazing coverage. Did you know how much of a “holy grail” this was for geospatial folks before you joined Loveland? What kinds of reactions have you gotten from new users?
A: Yes, we are the “Go-To-Source” for all things parcel data. 🙂 I sort of knew how important and valuable this dataset was before I joined the company. But I think I now truly understand how hard it is to : acquire and collect this data Standardize it across the board. Every county’s data is so different from another. So normalizing it – cleaning up the data for easier consumption – is easier said than done. provide it in 5 file formats to ensure customers get what they want cut through the bureaucracy to obtain the data from counties find and integrate valuable datasets that can augment our already valuable data – like the USPS vacancy dataset and buildings footprints data.
The reactions we receive from users have mostly been about the quality and coverage of our data, the price, and our transparency. We are the most affordable parcel data vendor with high quality coverage. We communicate all of our data updates to customers on a monthly basis. So they are always aware of what we are adding, updating and improving. Our origins lie in “democratizing data” and we believe we are doing that well.
Q: I myself know what kind of an immense task this is, since I’ve been in charge of compiling similar data for Minnesota’s 87 counties for years. What’s the hardest part to automate?
A: Well, we’ve built a state-of-the-art ML model that lets us clean parcel data to perfection in a matter of seconds! 😉 No, but seriously, the hardest part to automate is normalizing and cleaning the data! We do rely on a very robust set of open source geo tools like PostGIS, QGIS, and GDAL. There’s still a lot of manual work backed by the judgement and experience of our parcel team.
Nearly every one of the 3,200 counties in the US manages its data independently. There’s very little consistency from place to place even for basic columns like “owner”: it could be “deedholder, “firstname”, “fname”, “propow”, or pretty much anything else. And you’d think that a field called “Parcel ID” might be unique — but it rarely is.
Generally, counties within states are more like each other than counties outside of those states, but not necessarily. Also, cleaning the data can be quite tricky at times. Working with this data makes it apparent how much human error can be involved, especially when it comes to casting columns that should be integers or double precision from text. Date field conversion can also be quite tricky at times, depending on the formatting used by a place. A lot of rules built up over time plus the keen eyes of our data team help us keep quality high.
Q: I know there are a lot of counties in the US that sell their parcel data in an attempt to recover costs. Do you think these counties are aware that you’re repackaging their data and selling it yourself? If so, have you faced any opposition from local government officials?
A: Some counties have been slower or more reluctant to openly share their parcel data than others, but the overwhelming trend we see is towards more data accessibility. Over the last five years, many more counties and entire states have moved towards open parcel data, and we haven’t had any problems in displaying, sharing, and providing services around it. It’s not uncommon for us to have cities and counties as customers and they all want easy access to the data.
As time goes on, we anticipate that the public facts contained in parcel data will be ubiquitous, and the value that we add to the base data through organizing, standardizing, and adding additional data from other sources, including machine learning, will be where a lot of the value is. This is also a value add that we can provide back to counties, so it’s a win win.
A few years ago the team did some research to see how much county assessors who do still sell parcel data are making from it, and who they are selling it to. The numbers were very low and the people they are selling it to are often resellers who mark it up and resell it. We’re definitely not alone in the space of selling parcel data, and we work hard to be good, positive actors who are helpful to local governments and the public.
At the end of the day, parcel data is made of public record facts about how the country is subdivided, owned, taxed, and used. The public nature of the subdivision of land in the US stretches back to the earliest days of the country and big public programs like the US Public Land Survey which started in 1785. We see ourselves as providing a missing service by bringing all these local datasets together into a big picture of how we own, use, and inhabit the country. The reaction to that has been positive.
Q: Are you scraping any REST endpoints like OpenAddresses, or are you more frequently downloading from open data sites and then loading into your database?
A: The nationwide trend towards making parcel data open to the public has been important to us. We do download data from data portals and scrape from public REST APIs. Our team of parcel prospectors is both incredibly nice and incredibly talented at collecting the data. We haven’t yet gone to digitize counties that are still paper-based — maybe someday.
Q: How does the team decide what attributes to standardize on across the country? I’ve seen parcel datasets with some 90+ columns in them, but you seem to be flexing what you serve based on the sources. Is that hard to stay on top of?
A: We roughly based our schema around what the State of North Carolina uses to standardize their parcel data. We try to use columns that are broad, but also relatively unambiguous. There are occasional movements towards a federal standard, and that would be amazing. Most places don’t have that depth of data as North Carolina has been working on their statewide dataset for a while, and helping local assessors get up to that level of detail. If a place doesn’t have as many fields, that’s what we work with.
As far as custom columns, we generally try and take a maximalist approach. For clients working exclusively within a very local scope, you never know what column is a must-have. The benefit of having the schema is that at a larger scope it allows one to be pretty flexible in data exporting without porting over a ton of custom fields aggregated from various counties.
A: Thank you. We are thrilled about our partnership with Carto. We love Carto and everything they have done and built in such a short span of time. They are a benchmark in the GIS world and to get our data into their product suite is absolutely amazing! What this means for us, I guess, is it’s a testament to the quality of our data and coverage. We have always known that, but when we have trusted members of the GIS world like Carto and Mapbox believing in our data, it’s great validation for all of our work! Our lean team of 14 works tenaciously to improve our product every single day and now everybody is starting to see that.
Q: I guess you can tell I love talking about parcel data. Let’s diverge, though: what kinds of things do you like to do in your free time? Any hobbies?
A: I’m guilty of varied interests! Although as a mom to a hyperactive 2 year old, I guess I don’t get to indulge in hobbies as much as I used to. 🙂 I love to cook, sing, and read. I’m sort of an amateur food blogger on Instagram right now. Travel has always been a passion. Growing up, I maintained a travel log and dreamed of a career in travel some day. Of course, those days are behind me, but the passion for travel still continues.
Growing up in India, I had made a vow to travel to every state in India. I think I am at a 95% completion rate. It’s not so much about checking off the bucket list but more about discovering the rich cultural heritage and differences in every place. India is so diverse. People speak and write a different language, just 50 kilometers apart. And the only way to truly experience that is by traveling to every nook and corner. And of course, discovering the range of local foods is absolute heaven for a foodie like me. The hope is to do the same here in the US, and eventually worldwide.
Q: Since you’re new to geo, you probably haven’t read a lot of GeoHipster interviews. What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘geohipster’?
A: I actually have read some since I started with Loveland. I love the work that many of your featured geohipsters are doing. Although when I read those, the irony is all too evident to me. I’m an imposter GIS person at best right now (that will change in a few months I reckon). 🙂 My team however is GIS through and through.
The term ‘geohipster’ to me is someone, anyone – techie, non techie, GIS or non-GIS who’s passionate about their local geography and land grid! It could be an urban planner, a surveyor, a cartographer or someone like our CEO – Jerry Paffendorf who’s dedicated the past ten years of his life to change the property landscape of Detroit and continues to do that still, in his own way, outside of his work at Loveland.
Q: What kinds of advice would you give to folks in startups and SAAS looking to diversify into a field like geo? What advice would you give yourself the day before you started?
A: As someone who comes from a long line of tech startups and SaaS, the one thing I can guarantee is that working in geo would bring in just the same amount of challenge and excitement as any other industry. Typically, that’s what most folks who prefer working in startups are drawn to – an exciting, fast paced industry. Geo has not disappointed in that regard. Also, GIS is a very large umbrella, brimming with opportunities. The surveying and mapping market in the US is about $9.3 billion and growing, as of 2019. The sky’s the limit. Cooler things are happening and being built as we speak with droning technologies and use of AI & ML on aerial imagery. It’s an exciting time to switch over to Geo.
For me personally, since we are the “parcel/cadastral kind” in GIS, the advice I would have given myself is to prepare for working with the public sector. Until now, I’ve only worked in the private sector and managed customers in private sector verticals. So working with counties and the public sector is a different experience that I’m now learning to navigate. But, the exciting part about my job is that I get to straddle both sectors.
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.
Nicole was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.
Q: You and I met at State of the Map US in Minneapolis this past fall. Did you enjoy the conference and your trip to Minnesota?
A: Yeah, we met at the cool kid table with Ana Leticia Ma, I think. Loved the conference, but still can’t believe there weren’t more people there. We’re talking about maps, after all, not some arcane tech.
Rant aside, there are three sessions I keep sending people links to:
Mapping Prejudice: Next time you want to show someone how redlining works and why it matters
Q: Tell our readers how you got into mapping, GIS, and/or OSM.
A: I was looking to do more with data journalism, and the first awkward project I took on involved scraping Craigslist to figure out where and when people most often got parted with their iPhones. Usually, when I’m trying to learn something, I like to layer different aspects of it, so I went out in the field as a GIS volunteer at the San Francisco Botanical gardens, waving the Trimble around in the misty fog. And from there, MOOCs, a GIS certificate and a lot of trial and error. I still think (and work) way more like a journalist than someone with a traditional GIS background, for better but often worse.
Q: How was the idea of Resiliency Maps inspired?
A: The map you need but don’t have is probably the most compelling one to make, right? A couple of years ago, I moved to South of Market, a part of San Francisco that I’d never lived in and didn’t know that well.
I’d recently renewed my Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (yes, NERT!) training so all the teaching about how to spot soft-story buildings and potential hazards was fresh in my mind. I realized that I had no idea where to go and how to get there if an earthquake hit. The map in my go-bag was from the tourist board. At the time, it wasn’t to scale and didn’t cover the whole city!
The basic idea is to create a neighborhood map, built with all open-source tools, that can be downloaded, used offline and printed for emergency prep. It shows assets and hazards, so you can navigate your surroundings safely.
I’ve volunteered and worked in open source and felt strongly that OpenStreetMap and open-source tools were the way forward. My first approach to OSM was a mapathon after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, so I knew how powerful it is post-disaster. But talking to people, some skepticism bubbled up about how easy OSM was to use, “were there mobile apps?”, “could you use paper?”, things like that.
I wrote a tutorial for every question people had to show that it was viable, and then thought, “Wait, I should do something with this.”
Q: What do potential users need to know about it?
We’re still in the early stages and looking for contributors, especially cartographers with OSM knowledge. The next step for Resiliency Maps (RM) is to create a template to represent the most common features necessary during an emergency. We have some promising visualizations already but we’d love to get more tests and more communities to try them and give us feedback.
Q: You grew up in the Bay Area, right? Does that factor into your interest in maps?
A: Disaster maps, for sure. I’ve spent about half my life in San Francisco, the other half in Italy. Both places are pretty complicated, seismically, so it’s always hovering in the background. This old Red Cross poster comes to mind:
Or maybe it’s the disaster mentality that travels with you? In any case, the differences in approach to preparedness in the two countries is fascinating.
The Civil Protection in Tuscany developed a free app (with OSM as basemap!) to show you where to go in a flood or landslide for the entire region. It shows things like which school might serve as a shelter and what its amenities are (number of beds, showers, defibrillator, etc.) and whether the building is suitable for shelter in an earthquake.
The app pushes weather alerts and will eventually have a navigation feature to route you while avoiding hazards like flood-prone underpasses. The datasets are available in an open data portal, too. We don’t have free, public resources like that for San Francisco, let alone regionally.
However, I’ve convinced exactly none of my friends or relatives in Italy to get a go-bag together. Outside the capillary network of Civil Protection volunteers and local associations, the average Italian feels much less impetus to prepare. There’s a faint superstition that preparing somehow invites disaster?
Q: Tell me about your latest adventure, becoming a licensed Ham radio operator.
A: Getting the HAM license early in 2019 felt like crossing some kind of nerd Rubicon, but I did it because in a disaster the tech we use everyday can’t be trusted to see us through.
It’s late 19th-century tech that still plays a powerful role, because when everything else fails you have a dedicated network of FCC-licensed volunteers who come to the rescue. During 9/11, the Amateur Radio Service kept New York City agencies in touch after their command center was destroyed, and it was also used in Hurricane Katrina, etc.
You hear of folks managing to use WhatsApp or messenger or similar during an event, but you can’t count on that. Redundancy matters!
Q: It’s possible that you’re a geohipster. What would you say the chances are?
A: Mmmm. Very low. Unless it’s more about shunning hoodies than the maps you make? What we’re doing at RM is deeply uncool, and I haven’t gotten over the embarrassment of being a San Francisco native promoting downloaded, static and/or paper maps. It’s so retro! And not in a hip-to-be-square kind of way.
We recently produced three neighborhood maps for NERT that work in 11×17 and larger formats using QGIS. What sold them on the maps was that they were really, really simple: building outlines, street names, fire stations and battalion boundaries. (The battalions are the only fire stations in a neighborhood open after a major event.) And they have to work in black and white. That’s it! The neighborhood NERTS now have a tool that they can mark up however they want, use for planning and also post-event.
Making maps that simple is harder than it looks, as you’d probably expect. Also, print maps are an unruly beast. But that doesn’t make it geo hip, for sure.
A: The secret to a good risotto: Mantecare. It’s an Italian verb that’s basically only ever used to remind you to fold in grated parmesan and generous dollops of butter right before serving. It’s the difference between novice and maestro in terms of the result, but can’t be more idiot-proof to pull off.
Frankly, I’m too new to GIS to offer any pearls of wisdom in that area.
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.
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.
Belle Tissott is an Assistant Director of Product Development at Digital Earth Australia, where she works to develop new methods to process and analyse satellite imagery in order to map and better understand Australia’s land and water. She is a programmer and mathematician, with a strong drive to do what she can to make a positive impact in the world.
Belle was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.
Q: You came to spatial from IT, does that mean you have geo-imposter syndrome as well as programmer-imposter syndrome?
A: Yes, yes and a little bit more yes!
One of the things which has been both amazing and confronting working at Geoscience Australia is just how many insanely smart people there are here. And whilst it’s incredible to work with and learn from such talented peers, it is almost impossible not to doubt whether you’re good enough to be a part of this, and (for me) to wonder just when everyone will realise you’re a fraud.
I recently started opening up with peers about my self-doubt, and to my surprise, it didn’t make them think I’m incompetent. They were understanding, supportive and tended to share their own doubts and fears in return. Realising that imposter syndrome is a pretty universal thing certainly hasn’t removed the feelings entirely, but I find it has made them easier to ignore.
Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a hippy. Can you elaborate?
A: My parents moved to a hippy commune near Nimbin in New South Wales in the 70s, and built a beautiful house in the forest. We had limited power, no mains water and an outside toilet. I grew up there as a ‘free range’ kid, playing in the mud, swimming in the creek and adventuring in the forest. It was fantastic, but very different to your average suburban upbringing. I distinctly remember being shocked when I was to start high school and we were expected to wear shoes EVERY day!
Interestingly whilst I feel like a hippy here, I feel pretty conservative when I go home to Nimbin. I think identifying as a hippy comes from what I see as important and noticing how it’s different from the norm. I feel like ‘normal’ society trains people to put a very high value on wealth and reputation, whereas these things are extremely unimportant to me. I just want to be happy, have a positive impact on the world and those around me.
Q: As a hippy, how did you get into IT?
A: Very much by accident.
I dropped out of school after year 10 and went to TAFE (Australian vocational training) and did a Diploma in Apparel Manufacturing. Throughout my studies I struggled with the way the fashion industry treated young girls, and realised by the end of it that I couldn’t comfortably be part of this toxic world. I was lost. My boyfriend at the time was applying to do Bachelor of Information Technology at university the following year, and, very much as a joke, I applied too. It sounded interesting enough, I liked computer games and problem solving, but an IT-based profession wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind, plus I didn’t finish school! To my utter shock I got in and loved the programming side of it. I could lose myself in learning languages and creating something from nothing.
Q: As an “IT gurl”, how did you get into Geoscience Australia (GA)?
A: I had a friend working as a contractor at GA and she was aware of them looking for more developer staff and thought I would be a perfect fit. I didn’t think I had the skills they were after (that good old self-doubt messing with ability to push forward), however she encouraged me to apply anyway. I was offered an initial contract of just 6 weeks working on their metadata catalogue. With only 6 weeks guaranteed and being the primary income earner for my family, I couldn’t leave my existing job, or relocate my family to Canberra, so this made for a very challenging period. I moved to Canberra alone, worked for GA during the day and did my other work over evenings & weekends, and went home to see my partner and kids every 2 weeks for just a couple of days.
All went well and I was offered a 6 month contract continuation, I left my other job and we packed up our life and made the move from sunny, warm, beachy Byron Bay, to freezing cold Canberra. Later in the year a lead dev position became available and I scored that to become a permanent part of the GA family!
Q: As a GA staff member, how did you get to work in Earth observation?
A: Ah, I think this goes back to when I was out of work for a while when my kids were young. I decided I should go back to university so I would be more employable after the time off. I chose a BSc majoring in mathematics and statistics (because I thought studying maths would be fun!). It was, and it wasn’t… I loved the maths, but got a full-time job part way through, so ended up working & studying with two young kids, which is not great for your sanity!
Anyways, how does this relate to EO? So, working at GA I was doing web development, which is what I’d always done. However, some fabulous managers saw that my maths/stats background could be good for scientific development work, so I got the opportunity to learn Python and work within the Digital Earth Australia team creating products from satellite imagery. I realised pretty quickly that this was where I was meant to be. I didn’t even know it was what I was looking for in a job, but I love everything about it now!
Q: You moved to Canberra, the center of bureaucracy, from Byron Bay, the center of… non-bureaucracy. Tell us about the two cities.
A: The two places are so vastly different, but both amazing in their own way. Byron Bay is full of natural beauty. It has the most amazing beaches in the world as well as lush rain forests and crystal clear creeks. Working in Byron I would pop to the beach for a dip during my lunch break over summer — it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave such an idyllic place, particularly for Canberra. Before spending time in Canberra my view of it was dull, grey, and full of boring public servants. We moved for work. It has FAR surpassed my expectations (though maybe not hard given what I thought of it!).
Primarily it’s the people I’ve met who have made me feel so happy to live here. My love of science at times made me feel a little out of place in Byron Bay, where conspiracy theories and alternative remedies are so popular. Now, I’m surrounded by kind, passionate, science-loving, fun people. But I miss the beach and lush forests. I miss moisture in general, I struggle with how dry Canberra is, and the sun in summer is like napalm, so I’m failing at growing veggies. But there are going to be ups and downs of all places, I like to stay focused on the ups of where I currently am — amazing, fabulous people!
Q: What you do is data science, so what does data science mean to you?
A: Data science to me is two-fold. It’s the fun in the challenge of finding new and wonderful ways to process, analyse and interpret insane amounts of data to extrapolate meaning and understanding. But it also is a way I feel I can connect my love of tech and programming, with my passion to do something positive for the world.
Q: I hear you like cosplay, what is your ultimate cosplay character?
A: The character I’ve done most is Harley Quinn. I like the happy/crazy combo, and the black/red is always fun to play with. More recently I however, if I were to have time, I would love to make some Twi’lek costumes as I think making the lekku (long fleshy head tail things) would be a fun challenge.
Q: Tell us about your parrot and teenage angst
A: Ooh our parrot was amazing. During a family weekend walk up Black Mountain we came across an injured fledgling crimson rosella. Despite being warned that it would give a solid bite (it was so tiny I thought it’d be ok), I swooped in to save the day. One bleeding finger later we were heading home with a new little baby. After a check from a vet we were told that it had a poorly healed broken wing and that it would likely never be able to fly so “I can put it down, or you now have a pet bird” — the kids were there, so we now had a pet bird (Pippin).
Surprisingly, the cat was fantastic about it and would lay there while Pip groomed him. At first all was fabulous, and he (I think) gradually learned to fly a little, from head-to-head. As he grew into a teen however he became a jerk and we were suddenly living in a house tormented by an erratically aggressive, but beautiful, sky rat. Pip’s flying got stronger and stronger. Amazingly, at the same time we began to get visits from a rosella family who would sit on our deck and chat to him through the window. One day we opened the door to take washing out and he swooped out to join the family. They all flew off together. It was beautiful to see. We would occasionally see them all at the local park, all very close to each other and him being watched over by the adults in the group.
Q: I found this fantastic picture of you and your kids in Nepal, how was that journey with young kids?
A: It was absolutely amazing for a number of reasons, with the story behind why and how we organised this trip being just as big a part as the incredible adventures we had.
This was a bit of a mental health trip for me. I was unexpectedly made redundant and really struggled to deal with the emotions around it all. I felt rejected and like a failure. I didn’t know how to find the confidence to step back out and look for more work. I just wanted to run away and take some time to process my feelings without the stressors of normal life. The support from my family was what got me through.
Me: “I think I need to walk into the mountains in Nepal” Matt (my partner): books tickets for the end of the week.
I have a soft spot for Nepal, the people are so friendly and the mountains are breathtaking. This was my second trip there, the first one being 12 years earlier with a 7 month old baby in a backpack. The kids weren’t that young this time (9 & 12), so very capable of walking decent distances. We spent 6 weeks wandering in the mountains and exploring new places together, it was an incredible bonding experience for us as a family and I would definitely recommend it. Also, I came back grounded, calm, at peace with what happened, and confident to get out there and work again.
Interviewer’s note: Belle has booked another trip to Nepal for December 2019 and I take full credit for re-inspiring her!
Q: And lastly, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: I don’t know if I am. I don’t drink beer and I’m REALLY bad at growing a beard. The only time I wear a flannel is when I’m staying with my parents and wear my Dad’s. I am however a decent coffee snob. Firstly, instant coffee is NOT real coffee. Coffee which has been reheated time and time again is NOT real coffee. Plunger coffee is rough, but in desperation I could consume. But really, espresso latte with properly heated (not burnt) milk is my go to. Or, if I’m channeling my inner hippy, a soy dandy latte (I know, not coffee – but fabulous nonetheless).
On November 26th, we at GeoHipster were informed of a dispute regarding potentially incomplete credits for one of the maps in our 2020 calendar. In the following days, we entered into discussions with the involved parties in an attempt to reach a satisfactory resolution. As a result of these discussions, on December 2nd we created a Second Edition of the 2020 calendar by substituting a map from Miguel Marques. Miguel’s map ranked highly among the original submissions, and will be included in all calendars ordered after our update. The Second Edition also includes an updated cover with Miguel’s name listed among the authors.
Please join us in congratulating Miguel for becoming part of this amazing product!