Patrick McGranaghan is a land surveyor in Denver, Colorado. He started the MapPorn subreddit in May 2011 while living in Taipei, Taiwan. In his free time Patrick is a geographic pilgrim, visiting places like the Mason-Dixon line and all seven corners of Colorado. Patrick also runs the Twitter account @mapporntweet.
Patrick was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.
Q: How did your career as a land surveyor come about?
A: I found a job working as a rodman for a surveying crew after doing a stint teaching English to school children in Taiwan. Living in Taiwan was one of the best experiences in my life, but after four years it was time to come back. When I got back I had few connections or prospects, but knew I wanted to do something with maps, so I applied for a surveying job that I found on Craigslist. After several years of learning on the job I was able to move into my dream job of drawing survey maps for a living.
Q: The 10th anniversary of /r/MapPorn is coming up. Tell me what inspired you to start MapPorn, and what goes on behind the scenes.
A: I joined the Reddit community early on because I liked the interface and the up-vote and down-vote style of finding content. When I started /r/MapPorn the ‘subreddit’ communities were still a new idea and there wasn’t one for high-quality maps. I can remember in the years of the 2000s trying to search for good maps and the content was much harder to find. There were a few sites like the David Rumsey Map Collection and Frank Jacobs had a great blog called Strange Maps but other than that there were few sites that collected the kind of maps I was interested in.
In the years since Reddit and the user-base has transformed. Reddit was originally for desktop users who could look at content on a big screen with a reliable internet connection. Now, for better or worse, the majority of users are on mobile. I think this biases the content in favor of bite-sized consumable maps that look good on a phone or tablet device. Purists sometimes find these ‘meme’ style maps to be irritating, but the demographic trends are inexorable.
Q: Are you a map hoarder?
A: Yes, map hoarding is definitely a problem for us in the hobby. Any time I’m traveling I can’t resist picking up free brochures or other ephemera with a map. I have boxes in my closet full of such souvenirs and memorabilia. I’m used to moving around and traveling so I probably have a smaller collection than a lot of hobbyists to keep things light. Almost the entirety of my bedroom walls are covered in maps and illustrations. I recently visited a great little map store here in Denver called The Old Map Gallery, and I had to pinch myself and think about my crowded walls to stop myself from buying more maps. Map collecting is sometimes surprisingly affordable and antique maps can be had for less than a night at a nice restaurant.
Q: What kind of maps would you like to see more of?
A: I think that there is still a lot of potential in maps with modern data visualization techniques. We have an ocean of data in this age and I think a lot of it is lost in databases, csvs, xml and other data structures. I like maps that connect disparate datasets in novel ways and make new discoveries. In the book “Info We Trust” RJ Andrews has a chapter visualizing the orientation of cathedrals and showing how they are oriented towards the rising sun. This is the kind of insight that new maps can show. The data is already out there, it just takes a clever person to connect the dots.
Q: You’re one of the biggest geo nerds I know. What are some of your geo-related hobbies?
A: Thanks, I’m flattered. In the words of Thomas Pynchon from Mason & Dixon, I would consider myself to be a “Geometrickal Pilgrim”. In 2020 I finished my goal of visiting all seven corners of Colorado. Yes, seven corners if you include the points where other states have their corners on the Colorado line. I also recently made a trip to the Philadelphia area to visit the Delaware “Wedge” and other sites associated with Mason and Dixon. A few years ago I hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.
I also like to make maps using QGIS and Illustrator. Recently I’ve been exploring different projections. I’ve been especially interested in the Hotine Oblique and the Gnomonic projections and in how they challenge conventional ideas of the flat map.
Q: When we met at NACIS in Tacoma, you told me you’ve spent a lot of time traveling. How many countries have you been to, and what are some of your future destinations?
A: Yes, that was a great NACIS convention! Unfortunately we’ve all had to put our travel plans on hold in the last year. I had planned on doing a Round the World trip in 2020 but obviously that fell through. Some of the places I hoped to visit on that trip include a huge map of Korea in Daejeon, a Soviet map store in Latvia, a giant map on a cooling tower of a power plant near Meppen, Germany, the home of Dutch astronomer Willebrord Snell in Leiden, and Roy’s baseline near Heathrow in England.
As far as countries I’ve been to, I don’t really keep count, but it’s around 30. Here’s to hoping things get back to normal soon. We’ve only got a limited time on this planet and we’re losing years of our lives that we won’t get back.
Q: Any final words to our GeoHipster readers?
A: I just want to say I love my GeoHipster calendar, shoutout to Barry Rowlingson for his April Fools’ San Serriffe map.
Trisalyn Nelson joined the Department of Geography at UCSB as Jack and Laura Dangermond Endowed Chair of Geography in 2020. From 2016-2020 she was Director of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Prior, she was the Lansdowne Research Professor and Director of the Spatial Pattern Analysis and Research Lab at the University of Victoria, Canada. Trisalyn is mom to Beatrice and Finn and married to Ian Walker. She loves bicycling and baking, especially with her family.
Trisalyn was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: As a student I was really interested in forest conservation. I had a summer internship at the Pacific Forestry Center and one of the mentors I met there showed me how being technically proficient in GIS and spatial data analysis would allow me to support better forestry decisions. As a result, I had to go and take a lot of additional classes, including pre-requisite courses, to get the data and computing skills needed to pursue GIS. But, I am so glad I did.
Q: How did you decide to pursue a career in academia?
A: I am an accidental geographer and an accidental academic. As the first in my family to attend university, I did not understand what a PhD was. I remember being super confused about the difference between a TA and a professor. I had many great professors and mentors that helped me succeed in university.
It was really a combination of a field course in the Rocky Mountains and great internships that lead me to learn how to do research. As someone that had struggled early on in university, it was amazing when I discovered GIS was something I was good at.
Q: Tell us about your typical work day (or week) — what you do, what GIS and other tools you use.
A: Hmm… well… I use lots of different tools. But, my favorite part of my job is scheming up new ways to answer questions using spatial data. I love collaborating and if someone comes by with spatial data I can’t help but get excited about finding ways to help with analysis. I have worked with many interdisciplinary teams and there is something so satisfying about seeing other people light up when they realize how GIS and geography can create a deeper understanding of data and issues.
Q: As an avid cyclist and a former year-round bike commuter I can relate to your bike safety concerns, and I admire your BikeMaps initiative. Tell us more about it.
A: I love bicycling and I love maps. BikeMaps.org is the bringing together of both the things. When I first had the idea, in response to my own near miss, I thought it would just be a fun summer project. But, it turns out that only about 20% of bicycling crashes are officially reported and there is a need to fill data gaps on bicycling safety. BikeMaps.org is a crowdsource tool for collecting data on bicycling crashes, near misses, and falls. We ask questions about what happened and the impact of the incident. We have published several papers using the data and are improving bicycle safety by providing hot spot maps to cities and modelling predictors of bicycling injury. We are so proud that cities are making investments to improve bicycling based on BikeMaps.org data.
We are launching a new project called WalkRollMap.org which uses a similar approach as BikeMaps.org for mapping micro barriers to walking and rolling with wheelchairs and other mobility assisting devices. The goal of this project is to reach people that are underseved by transportation systems and help them map where investment would enable their mobility. Stay tuned!
Q: What was/is the biggest challenge in developing and running BikeMaps? The technology? The data? The “crowd”?
A: Luckily we have always had an amazing technology development team that has protected me from some of the technological challenges. Using a crowdsourced tool requires ongoing promotion to people that can provide data, and constantly reminding people we are here is a challenge. But, the biggest challenge is working to ensure the data are representative. People providing data to BikeMaps.org are people that have access to both bicycling and technology. We need to ensure that people that do not have access are not left behind. Working to engage older adults, youth, women, low income and homeless people, and people of color is really critical and something we are focusing on improving in the next wave of data collection.
Q: You are the Jack and Laura Dangermond Chair of Geography at UCSB. You are also “The Dangerman Chair”. Tell us about the former. Who awarded you the latter?
A: The Jack and Laura Dangermond Chair in Geography is a faculty position at UCSB. The chair is endowed by the generous Dangermonds. Originally, it was created for Michael Goodchild, one of the key leaders in the field of GIS. As such, I see the position as a really important mixture of teaching, research, and disciplinary leadership. I am hoping that in this position I can be a champion for inclusive and impactful geographical research. With so many pressing issues, from climate change to social inequity, we need to do everything we can to accelerate solutions.
I received the Dangerman Chair award from my 9 year old daughter Beatrice Nelson-Walker. She heard me talking about the Dangermond chair and how excited I was to be moving to UCSB to be the Dangermond chair of geography. So she drew me a picture for my office. I guess she heard Dangerman.
Q: I have never been to Santa Barbara, but I’d love to visit some day. Looks wonderful. Tell us about life in Santa Barbara.
A: Santa Barbara is really beautiful. It is near the ocean with a moderate climate. Lots of bicycling and hiking. And, the food is delicious.
Q: Do you still bike to work?
A: Absolutely! I love biking, with bike commuting being my favorite.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I love to bake. I make fancy cakes for my kids’ birthdays, usually in the shape of animals. And, I have a line of cookies.
Q: Do you have any hipstery traits? Other than cycling, of course (a fixie maybe?)
A: I am obsessed and snobby about coffee. Though, I think hipsters may be trying to ruin coffee with sour roasts!
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Geographers should be at the forefront of creating solutions to the world’s most pressing issues. From climate change to social justice the tools that geographers have are critical for making the world more sustainable and more inclusive.
Rebekah Jones’ unlikely notoriety as a coronavirus whistleblower stemmed from her ground-breaking work as the GIS Manager at the Florida Department of Health, where she led data and surveillance during the global pandemic. Her work became the standard for states nation-wide. In May 2020, when asked to manipulate data in support of a premature plan to reopen the state, Jones refused, was fired, defamed, and became an object of the press for months after she filed her whistleblower complaint against the state.
Jones earned her bachelor’s from Syracuse University in 2011 with dual majors in geography and journalism, then went on to study hurricanes and climate change at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Later, Jones headed to Florida State University to continue her research in hurricanes and climate change.
After leaving DOH, Jones built her own system to monitor the pandemic, worked on global programs to track cases in east Africa, and launched a nationwide initiative to track cases in schools. In September 2020, Jones was named one of Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 and one of Medium’s 50 experts to trust during a pandemic.
Rebekah was interviewed by Christina Boggs-Chavira, Mike Dolbow, and Atanas Entchev.
Q: What sparked your love for geography? How did you get into GIS?
A: Having lived through blizzards, tornadoes and hurricanes as a kid, I always found weather and hazards interesting. I’d say I fell in love with geography as a discipline at Syracuse, when I took my first global climate change course with Dr. Jane Reed. She helped me make sense of all of the things that had been happening around me my entire life. It felt like finding religion in a way — I finally understood my lived experiences in a scientific way.
Q: You built Florida state’s COVID Dashboard, leading a 20-person team. Then you were fired. You launched your own COVID Dashboard 2.0 (later renamed to Covid Monitor) in one day, which you financed yourself. This is an amazing feat. How did you manage? Did you have help?
A: I don’t know where the 20-person team came from but I was actually the only one who ever touched the dashboard, the data feeds, or any of the data that fed into it. It was me alone for months because I was the only one there who could do it. My backup was stuck in India and then was quarantined for a few weeks, so I didn’t even get to have someone else do the updates until late April. It was extremely stressful and overwhelming. I was exhausted, not unlike a lot of people who had been working all day, every day since the pandemic started. When I refused to use the system to mislead and lie to people, they took the dashboard (and wrecked it) then fired me. After all I had put into the project, they didn’t care. I built my next dashboard, Florida COVID Action, in June, to provide a location that brought in ALL of Florida’s authoritative data into one location, not just what the Department of Health restricted me to while I worked there. I added Department of Corrections data, emergency management data, hospitalization data, long-term care facility data, testing site data — if it was published in an official capacity by the state, I added it. Two months or so later, I co-founded The Covid Monitor with partners from FinMango and Google. That project arose out of a need to provide K-12 case data — a void no one else was filling. We saw the gap and the need, so we tackled it. It’s been an amazing success since then and I couldn’t be more thankful to my partners.
Q: Incorporating school district data into the COVID Monitor is one major difference from the official Florida dashboard 1.0. Your COVID Monitor is presently the only national reporting system for school districts. Why is school district data tracing important? Was it difficult to obtain the data?
A: At first, no one wanted to report school data. We depended on press releases and news articles, reporting from staff inside schools, and investigative reporting by our team. Mississippi stepped forward as the first state to report consistent data about cases in K-12 schools, and their progressive thinking allowed us to pressure other states to do the same. Now, most states report some kind of data about schools, and many districts in states that aren’t currently reporting will release their own district-wide data. Schools are a breeding ground for the virus — as we’ve seen across the United States and especially in the UK, where schools remained open to face-to-face instruction leading to the emergence of the B117 strain.
Q: When setting up applications for hurricane tracking or for COVID, I probably would be concerned about getting the data right and then secondly but still incredibly important — your application is about to be slammed. What do you do to prepare for all that traffic that is about to click on your map?
A: I was manager of GIS for the entire Florida Department of Health, so thankfully I had access and control over all our dedicated servers, backups, etc. I had to check in with Esri since it’s an online platform to ensure they were ready for the traffic, as well. Crafting the settings for optimization and working on code helped a lot.
Q: Our readers are all about open data and the transparency that it engenders. Some might say that proprietary software can taint analysis results because the code is in a “black box”, whereas free and open source software can lower the barriers to scientific replication. Where do you stand on the debate over tools, if anywhere? Is transparent data more important than the tools used to display it?
A: Reproducibility is a must. I actually published extremely detailed data definitions and processes while I worked at DOH. The software used here was just a tool to display data and provide APIs. The data itself is where the transparency must be absolute. How is it gathered? What are the potential biases in collection and production? What does this data say, and what does it not say? What is not known? Where are the gaps? Transparency is about acknowledging your data’s flaws as well as its strengths. I stand firmly with the “release the code” group.
Q: Where do you see this project going? You will get another job sooner rather than later. Do you foresee the COVID Monitor folding into your new job, or will you continue to maintain it outside of the job, or something else?
A: We were all hoping that a new administration would take over The Covid Monitor and run this project from the NIH, CDC or Dept. of Education (or some combination thereof). We had hope when Biden announced a national dashboard, but we’ve yet to see schools even mentioned in that plan. It’s really disappointing, but if this administration fails the public again by not providing this data, we’ll continue to do it ourselves until it is no longer needed.
Q: Recently your mobile phone and PC were seized on a search warrant by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. What was that about? Do you have your devices back?
A: I hope to have my devices back soon. The raid on my home was nothing more than an attempt by DeSantis to find out who’s been talking to me and to flush out disloyalty within his ranks.
Q: I can speak for myself and say with all honesty, hearing about what has happened to you and what is continuing to unfold and my heart goes out to you. I hope I would have the strength like you did. How did you do it, what gave you the strength?
A: I don’t know. I have always fought for doing what I thought was right, so it’s really second nature for me to see something wrong and say “no, I will not accept this.” We moved because guns were pointed at my kids in the raid ordered by the Governor, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reporting the information people depend on. I don’t think anyone knows what they’ll do in those moments. We all hope we’d do the right thing — the hard thing — even when guns are pointed at us or our family, but until we’re there, no one really knows.
Q: You’re a wife and a mother. How does your family handle all this — the recent move to DC and the rest of the craziness?
A: When you’re in your home and armed men storm your house, there’s a loss of security in your mind. Even here in DC, I jump when the doorbell rings. I don’t know if that will ever go away. You feel like there’s no safe place for you anymore. My son is struggling, but so am I, and my husband, in our own, different ways. Moving is always crazy — and feels impossible with a toddler, ha. Not fun, but necessary.
Q: As someone with degrees from Syracuse and LSU, plus significant time living in Florida and now DC, you’ve seen a lot of the country. Forgetting about COVID for a minute, if you could pick a place to live, where would that be and why?
A: Hawaii. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Louisiana, Florida, now DC… I know I love the beach, warmth, sun. I’m committed to mapping indigenous landscapes and protecting cultural sitescapes, and Hawaii would be an amazing opportunity to do so. My roommate at Syracuse is Hawaiian and would tell me about her home. If we’re limiting options to the United States and cost wasn’t an issue, Hawaii, hands down.
Q: Do you consider yourself a GIS person, or a data scientist, or a whistleblower? Or maybe all three?
A: I’m not a data scientist. I keep emphasizing to folks that I am a geographer — and I was recognized as a geographer in the news for months before the raid. Now I’m back to data scientist, and it’s highly inappropriate. All scientists work with data, that doesn’t make them data scientists. I consider myself a GIS expert, a whistleblower, a geographer.
Q: You are a GIS celebrity, like it or not. You are the Forbes nerd of the year. How does it feel to be an industry celebrity?
A: Hahaha. I wish it would help me find a job! I had no idea the Forbes award was in the works, and they didn’t even contact me to tell me I had received it! I found out on Twitter several days after the announcement!
Q: Have you considered running for office?
A: Yes. Our country desperately needs scientists and geographers in office who have a steadfast commitment to doing what is right.
Q: Picture your average “geohipster”, if such a thing exists. Is that person doing what you would recommend to stay safe during a pandemic? If not, what should they be doing – or stop doing?
A: I would hope anyone with a geographically-focused education would know to do everything in their power to limit their role in spreading this virus.
Q: If you could make COVID-19 disappear with a snap of your fingers, what would you be doing for fun in your spare time?
A: Hiking, visiting with my sisters and parents, eating out, ha.
Q: What advice do you have for little aspiring geographers and for those of us who are a bit less little?
A: We work at the cross-section of Earth and people. The tension between those two entities can be jarring, and often tests our ideals of what is right and wrong. I asked this question to DOH “leadership” the day they asked me to use my work to lie to people about the safety of reopening, and I think it’s something everyone should ask themselves whenever they’re faced with such a decision. The Hippocratic oath of geography to do no harm:
“If we do this, will more people get sick and die than if we didn’t do it?”
And if that answer is yes, we shouldn’t do it. It’s that simple. It has to be that simple.
Ayodele Odubela is Founder and CEO of FullyConnected, a platform for reducing the barrier to entry for Black professionals in ML/AI. She earned her Master’s degree in Data Science after transitioning to tech from digital marketing. She’s created algorithms that predict consumer segment movement, goals in hockey, and the location of firearms using radio frequency sensors. Ayodele is passionate about using tech to improve the lives of marginalized people.
Ayodele was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.
Q: Our readers are mostly in the “geo” industry, but many of us consider data scientists like yourself to be kindred spirits. Can you tell us your story about how you got started in tech?
A: It was definitely a shaky kind of start. Like a lot of college students, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I had been a computer science major, a film major, and even studied athletic training. When I ended up at computer science, it felt close, but not exact. Around 2010 or so, I was coding in C++, but didn’t feel like I was learning. I had a lot of digital media experience from my film studies degree, so I ended up with a digital communications undergrad degree. That allowed me to work in marketing for a few years. I did some social media marketing, and landed at an app company, doing social analytics with A/B testing, in-app messages, and that sort of work. By the time that startup ran out of funds, data science was starting to become more popular, like “the sexiest job in the 21st century”! I went back to school for a Master’s in data science. This felt like a good next move. Since then I’ve worked for all kinds of companies doing a wide variety of work, like sensor recognition for firearms.
Q: Ethics in tech is having quite a “moment” – or maybe you might say a decade. You’ve been quite vocal on Twitter about Google’s recent firing of Timnit Gebru, as have many others. If you’re a technologist inside an organization that is making questionable decisions, what is your first move? Where do you draw the line between trying to change an organization from within, versus speaking out against it – and probably leaving?
A: I think it comes from having really hard conversations. Hopefully you’re in a workplace where a respectful challenge is seen as a good thing. I’m thankful that I’ve been in workplaces where I’ve felt enough freedom to bring up these types of problems, and bring up difficult conversations. They don’t always lead to change, but at least I’ve surfaced specific issues.
I think for a lot of technologists, the first move is to start talking to management about existing policies. A lot of times people break policies without realizing it. Take policies around things like proper data use and cyber security: we get trained, but we’re human and still make mistakes. We’re not always on top of it.
By first going to management, or a trusted manager, you can start to discover the incentives and the reasons why certain decisions are being made. I think you’ll often find it’s profit or revenue based, and in some instances I’ve been able to persuade teams to change their course of action by generating different processes and systems that don’t have such significant issues.
For example, in a past role they wanted us to create a tool that predicted someone’s gender based on their name. When this was first brought to me, I thought, “this is something we shouldn’t do”. I went digging and brought the “5 whys” to the problem.
It turned out, the marketing team wanted more data for push messaging and in-app notifications, because they noticed stark differences between how women and men interacted with the product. So, they didn’t have a nefarious motive, they just wanted more information – but they were still going about it in the wrong way. Instead of using that gender classifier, I created a user classification model to help them with this segmentation.
These decisions are going to be different for everyone. I personally have a lot less that I would deal with before leaving, because I have an intimate knowledge of how badly this kind of thing can hurt people. With the knowledge of the incentives behind organizational decisions, it should be easier for technologists to set their boundaries. Like with Timnit’s firing, if you’re in a situaton like that and you realize that the organization isn’t committed to being ethical or transparent, it can make it easier to leave.
For me, seeing that situation, where part of an organization that was labeled as “Ethics in AI” went and fired one of their leaders for speaking out, that was kind of the last straw for me as a user. But that can be very scary, especially the closer you get to it. Since technologists in the past have felt like our role is “neutral”, it’s not fun to think about law enforcement coming to your house because of the job you’re doing, when you’re just trying to tell the truth.
Q: You recently published “Getting Started in Data Science”, which looks like a great way for someone new to launch into your field. Can you tell us more about the book? What compelled you to write it? What will readers get if they buy it?
A: I was compelled to write this book because I had a hard time getting started in Data Science myself. I didn’t have a very technical background, and I was struggling to learn things like statistics and coding in what felt like a vacuum. Once I got to grad school, there was a snowball effect of learning; I began building on prior experiences, and getting help through real-life conversations.
Then when I got into industry, I was shocked by how even the learning from grad school didn’t match what my employer wanted me to do. In this book, I share a lot of industry knowledge that I’ve gained, like managing project deliverables, juggling stakeholders, that kind of thing. Readers get an introductory book that contains a lot of hints and tips that I didn’t have when I started.
Readers will also get a clear path into Data Science, depending on where they’re starting from. They can go the academia route, use boot camps, or some other journey, and I’m giving them details on their path from there, in particular how to leverage the domain knowledge they may already have. People come into this field from so many different backgrounds; it’s nice to transition into it when you already have some understanding of the domain’s important metrics or KPIs. I think the book is especially good for career transitioners, so they can leverage some of that prior knowledge in the next chapter of their career.
(To our readers: Ayodele is generously offering 25% off her book to our readers with the code GEOHIPSTER. –Ed.)
Q: I think a lot of our readers in the geospatial industry will recognize that advantage. There are a lot of us who are well-versed in one or two verticals, and also bring enough of the geospatial knowledge to bear in order to solve problems in those industries.
That makes sense; I think if you have any kind of specific knowledge, there are a lot of companies looking for that, so leverage it!
Q: Your experience has spanned from working for travel agencies to drone companies. There are obvious connections with mapping here – ever get sucked into a cartography rabbit hole? If not, is there anything about the mapping space that is attractive to you – or is it just an afterthought?
A: Not so much cartography, but I am very interested in sensor and geospatial data! I am kind of a geo-nerd. I took geology and geography courses in college and loved them. I actually considered switching majors to geology, but then saw how almost all the jobs were in oil/gas industries, and I knew that wasn’t for me.
But I have always enjoyed maps, and have a special relationship with them. As an only child on road trips, I would look at maps all the time as we traveled. When I was at AstralAR, I was playing with drone radio sensor data, and then was exposed to multi-dimensional spatial data for the first time. When I started to work on ML projects that would predict locations of items, that’s when I started to get a deeper understanding of this 3D world that we live in!
A lot of my hands-on work has been on sensor identification and understanding, like knowing there’s a very small range of amplitudes for different firearms. Telling apart a .45 from a .32 caliber weapon is a small change in amplitude, but we can easily differentiate them from other noises, like hand claps or stuff like that. There’s a natural connection between maps and sensor work, so geography is definitely more than an afterthought for me.
Q: Now for something a little lighter – any hobbies you want to share with our audience? What do you do for fun?
A: I’m a really huge hockey fan, and one of my grad capstone projects was predicting hockey goals. I’d love to see the NHL take on embedded sensors for player body positions, and take an exploratory look on the various positions players are in when they score really cool goals. I think there’s a lot of interesting location data out there that we have increased access to as IoT has grown.
Beyond hockey, I have a few personal interests, but it’s tough to pursue a lot of hobbies during a pandemic! I know I’d be kayaking a lot more if we weren’t dealing with COVID-19 right now!
Q: Had you ever heard of GeoHipster before I contacted you? We’re … kind of a niche publication. 🙂
A: No, actually, but I checked out your website and I like your stuff! I noticed that it didn’t feel like it was all boring GIS colors, and I was really drawn to that aesthetic.
Q: As I write this, you’re currently looking for work – I hope that doesn’t last too long! But describe the lucky company that’s going to get you on their payroll. What do they do? What don’t they do? Where do they operate?
A: My ideal employer is anywhere that truly takes accountability and transparency in AI to heart. I’m not picky about specifics; there’s so many interesting kinds of data I can work with. I just don’t want to be hampered with bringing up ethical issues all the time. I hope,with everything that has happened lately, there are more organizations that are truly open to being accountable and transparent, even if it’s at the cost of losing profits.
Q: Any advice for our readers, or aspiring data scientists?
A: If you’re an aspiring data scientist, when you’re dealing with data about real people, make sure to frame your work the way you would if the data was about your friends and family. We need to sometimes step away from thinking technically and preserving neutrality, and fix problems that well-intentioned tech has created or made worse. It’s not enough to just be ethical or work on responsible AI; we want to get closer to creating an equity utopia: designing for a world we want to live in, and understanding that historical data almost never reflects that. Every time we use historical data, we’re relying on imperfect humans from the past and their decisions. And that’s difficult when we’re trying to predict the future about a changing society. The earlier you do this, the easier it will be to be transparent and think about fairness in your work.
Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How (why) did you get into GIS?
A: In the late 1980s/early 1990s when I worked at a nonprofit environmental and consumer advocacy group (the New York Public Interest Research Group; NYPIRG), my boss was starting to use GIS for our work to help residents who were living near toxic waste dumps. Eventually he left to launch his own company using GIS in the environmental consulting industry. But he sparked my interest in GIS, and by the early 1990s I was using MapInfo to support NYPIRG’s environmental research and organizing.
Soon after that I was fortunate to be accepted as a Revson Fellow at Columbia University (the program no longer exists, but it was intended for mid-career urban activists). I spent the year exploring technology for community organizing (not just GIS but also the burgeoning World Wide Web, email, relational databases, etc). I enrolled in Columbia’s urban planning graduate program and for the next two years learned much more about GIS, census data, spatial analysis, and urban planning generally. All told it was a terrific experience learning about New York City, how cities around the world had developed, and acquiring GIS and data visualization skills and knowledge in the planning discipline.
While I was at Columbia, a colleague and I at NYPIRG created the Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP). It was a nonprofit entrepreneurial venture – we provided GIS services for a modest fee to other nonprofit groups in New York and across the country. CMAP lasted about eight years and we made maps and analyzed spatial data for hundreds of groups, large and small, in all areas of nonprofit work: education, health care, transportation planning and advocacy, environmental groups, you name it. And we created several online mapping applications for “clients” (including NYPIRG), ranging from online maps that provided subway directions in New York City, identified elected officials based on a user’s street address, visualized green infrastructure, and more (several years before Google Maps, etc!).
Q: Tell us about your current job — overall duties, daily routine…
A: Since 2006 I’ve directed the CUNY Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. The Mapping Service is part of the Center for Urban Research, one of the academic/applied research centers at the graduate school.
My job involves lots of things. I work with my staff colleagues (Will Field, our senior application developer, and Valerie Bauer, a recent graduate of Lehman College’s graduate-level geography program) on our projects, collaborate with our Center for Urban Research director John Mollenkopf on research initiatives, and help other CUNY colleagues integrate GIS into their work.
I’m the point person who interacts with our partner organizations outside CUNY including nonprofit institutions such as the New York Academy of Medicine or the American Museum of Natural History, national civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, or government agencies such as the NYC Department of Homeless Services of the NYC Campaign Finance Board.
We’ve developed projects with each of these organizations, either online mapping applications, static/printed maps, or services such as geocoding. I also manage our funding for this work, whether it’s grant support from philanthropic foundations, contractual payments for our services, or both.
In addition to managing all this work, I still use GIS on almost a daily basis, usually ArcGIS but sometimes MapInfo or QGIS. I work with the Graduate Center’s IT staff and my colleague Will Field to manage our web server environment. I help maintain our data resources.
Q: Tell us about the tools you use in your job. Where do you stand on the open source vs proprietary debate?
A: We use whatever works 😊. We’re mainly an Esri shop as far as desktop GIS goes. I started using Arc products in the mid-1990s through nonprofit grant support from Esri. We’re fortunate that CUNY – the nation’s largest urban public university – has site licenses for pretty much all of Esri’s software products (CUNY comprises more than 20 individual colleges attended by more than 275,000 students, and GIS is used by students, professors, and researchers throughout the system.)
But we also continue to use MapInfo, mainly for geocoding and data management. We use QGIS and Postgres/PostGIS. Students working at our Center have used the spatial features of R to analyze data, and our colleagues at the Graduate Center make extensive use of R and QGIS as well as Esri’s software suite.
For our online mapping applications, we use a variety of platforms and technologies. Most of our applications are built around Leaflet, but some use OpenLayers. The Graduate Center server environment provides us with access to SQL Server, but we’re starting to use PostGIS for our online maps. Although we have a local instance of ArcGIS Server and we use ArcGIS Online to provide spatial data sets for our online maps, more and more we are using other options such as GeoJSON, SQL Server’s spatial features, and other online providers such as Mapbox and Carto.
Q: Do decision-makers pay attention to your work? I just learned (ht Joshua Stevens) that John Snow knew water was the source 5 whole years before he commissioned his cholera map from cartographer Charles Cheffins.The map was used to convince authorities and the public. Do today’s authorities listen? According to anecdotal evidence, policy makers in New Zealand take the advice of science researchers ~80% of the time, versus less than 20% in the US. What is your experience?
A: We tend to work on projects that decision-makers need, or that organizations want to leverage in order to make the case to decision-makers. In our work, decision-makers typically pay attention and respond to the maps we’ve produced (either for our partners, or in our own research).
For example, we provide maps for the NYC Department of Homeless Services that visualize the locations of shelters and facilities providing temporary residences, along with nearby services such as schools, other housing developments, parks, etc. In recent years these maps were used at the highest levels of policy debate to help restructure how New York City addresses the homeless crisis.
A major project we’ve been working on since 2016 has been the 2020 Census. We created an online map for census stakeholders across the country to prioritize census outreach and track the progress of census self-response (originally the self-response phase was going to be a month and a half, but due to COVID-19 it ended up being extended over 8 months). Our map was used by state agencies and local governments coordinating census planning (the State of Hawaii embedded the map at their census website), Census Bureau staff used the map, the House Oversight Committee and other congressional subcommittees referenced the map in news events and reports about the census, foundations supporting census stakeholders used our map to help guide their funding, and the many hundreds (thousands?) of groups across the country leading the effort to boost census self-response relied on our map, often on a daily basis. (The Census Bureau had several online map applications of its own for the 2020 Census, but ours combined all the data and features – and more – from the Bureau’s maps into one website, was easier to use, and was more flexible and responsive to community needs.)
Another local example is our collaboration with the New York Academy of Medicine. The Academy’s “Age Friendly NYC” program contacted us a few years ago for help in visualizing demographic patterns of the 65+ population across New York City, compared with services and other programs of interest to this population. We created the “IMAGE NYC” online map to support the Academy’s work in this area, and the map has been used extensively by philanthropic foundations, city agencies, and nonprofit groups.
Q: Authorities were “surprised” when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, even though spatial analysis models had been predicting such an event for decades. Have things changed since 2005? To judge from a recent Sharpie map action, they have not. Why are we even doing what we do if the consumers of our output — the policy makers — ignore our product? I sometimes ask myself “What’s the point?” Don’t you?
A: Maps are incredibly efficient visuals (when done right). And the analysis of spatial patterns in data is fascinating and powerful. But an effective map or analytical model doesn’t really matter if the policy makers aren’t paying attention or don’t want to pay attention. I think that’s best left for a larger discussion about politics and the potential for sustained community organizing and advocacy to make a difference (whether maps are involved or not).
Q: I got into GIS from planning, where GIS was lauded as a technology which would evolve beyond mere mapping into a decision-support system, and ultimately become a decision-making system. Are we there yet? Will we ever get there?
A: GIS-made maps, spatial analysis models, and online interactive mapping applications are pretty ubiquitous these days. It seems to me these efforts to understand real-world spatial patterns and trends have become integral to so many industries and government infrastructure. Take COVID-19 as an example. Almost from the start of the pandemic, organizations such as Johns Hopkins Institute and The New York Times used maps to visualize the spread of the virus. When New York City started publishing local data on positivity rates and other metrics, journalists and the public demanded that the data be mapped and that the city share its data publicly using small-area spatial units (the city is using ZIP Codes, but there’s an ongoing debate – at least on Twitter! – about the pros and cons of ZIP Codes versus neighborhood areas, census tracts, etc.). When the vaccine(s) are available, I’m sure GIS will play a key role in determining how it (or they) will be distributed locally and globally (Esri is already touting this.)
A: One thing I learned at NYPIRG was the importance of the media, and how to present your work to journalists so they would want to use it for their stories.
You’re generous to say that I’m a media celebrity, but I’m much more interested in making sure our maps get covered rather than me. I work hard to make sure journalists are familiar with our work and how maps can help them report on stories. I’m not as interested in getting quoted myself (I had my share of that for the 20 or so years I worked at NYPIRG – I was quoted in news articles, TV reports, and radio all the time), but these days if our maps are cited or if they help shape the coverage, I’m thrilled.
Also, my work with GIS at the CUNY Graduate Center (just like at NYPIRG) is very much a collaborative effort. I might be the one getting quoted in an article, but we couldn’t do this work without the support and involvement of lots of people and organizations: so many folks at the Graduate Center itself and CUNY overall, our partners for whom we make the maps, our funders supporting our work, etc.
One point to note about media coverage is that it is sometimes hard to get reporters interested in the maps themselves, partly (I think) because maps, online or otherwise, are so pervasive. But we’ve had some notable exceptions. In 2016 when we launched an online map for the NYC Campaign Finance Board showing the spatial patterns of campaign contributions for NYC’s 2017 municipal elections, a New York Times reporter was interested. The great thing for me was that our map itself was the story. The map made it easy for New Yorkers to see where funding was coming for local elections, and that was important enough to merit coverage in the paper of record.
An earlier example was in 2000 when the Times covered our CMAP project. It was newsworthy enough for the Times to write about how nonprofits in New York at the time were benefiting from “detailed maps using sophisticated Geographic Information Systems software” to support their advocacy work. It was wonderful to see that in the paper.
If CNN wants to improve on their election maps – or any other maps – we’d be more than happy to help them out!
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipstery hobbies we should know about?
A: My teenage kids would be the first to tell you I’m decidedly un-hipstery. But a fun thing I’ve been doing for the past few years is (re)learning guitar. I grew up in a musical family and I learned piano at a young age, and I tried my hand at being a teenage rock n roll guitar player. After high school I put all that aside, but then my son’s middle school offered a music class. He needed to pick an instrument and chose guitar, so I thought I’d start taking lessons with him. Now I’ve got the bug, and I’m learning as much as I can about fingerstyle guitar (focused on the blues in all its variations and music theory and technique more generally). It’s a blast. I really love it, and it provides a great sense of accomplishment and helps keep me sharp (fingerpicking is hard, but really rewarding!).
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Plan ahead, but try to live each day to the fullest, whatever gets thrown in your path.
Born, 1983 Salt Lake City, UT. Resides in Brooklyn, NY. Jennifer Maravillas is a Brooklyn based visual artist. She creates portraits of our land in media ranging from found paper to watercolor. Her aim in this work is to capture universalities and connections across disparate communities by studying social structures from histories, landscapes, and visual design. In 2015, she completed 71 Square Miles: a map of Brooklyn compiled from trash she collected on each block to represent the cultures and voices of the community. She’s continuing her mapping work with her long-term project, 232 Square Miles in which she will walk the remainder of New York City while collecting trash as well as exploring connections throughout historic maps and data. Her background includes studies in anthropology, painting, graphic design, cartography, and mass communication. Jennifer also works as a freelance illustrator creating color-filled works about life and the world. For artwork sales information, please contact the artist through her website. Visit the artist’s website: www.jenmaravillas.com
Jennifer was interviewed by Jonah Adkins
Tell us about yourself
I’m a visual artist currently residing in Brooklyn, NY, though my passion for exploring has led me to live all over the U.S. My art practice is centered around the land and can take many forms- as large painted or collaged maps, landscape paintings, and increasingly in book format. Exploring both the world and artistic media are correlating passions that get me out of bed in the morning.
How’d you get into mapping?
I rekindled my love for maps while working on a personal project in about 2010. It was a now unfinished children’s book about a little girl that learns to fly planes inspired by a good friend. She flies above San Francisco and I decided to color each block as an homage to the psychedelic city. I was hooked. After that I painted a few similar works and realized the physicality of creating a map by hand was an exercise in meditation on that space and history. Flying in planes or staring out of car windows was my favorite thing to do as a kid and this reconnected that love for really appreciating and seeing the land. It’s now become a mode of operating in the world- in my everyday practice as well as travels. These maps have sometimes taken the format of cityscapes while under commission but in my personal work the goal is to connect the medium to the place conceptually.
Over on instagram, i was fortunate enough to see you create your 2018 election map project. How’d it come about?
I created a map called Party Line for BallotBox https://www.ballotboxart.com/ – a show curated by Skylar Smith exploring voting rights that was intended to exhibit in Metro Hall of Louisville, KY but now is on view at 21C Louisville. The open call asked artists to explore voting rights to celebrate 2020 as the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the 55th Anniversary of the Voting Rights, and the presidential election.
Since this is also a census year I decided to celebrate the right to vote by learning about one aspect of voting which has yet to evolve: the drawing of our congressional district maps. Party Line is a 99” x 55” map of the United States painted in watercolor. Each county is colored in hues of reds, blues, and yellows representing three datasets which show the two methods of gerrymandering- cracking and packing. These colors represent total votes from the 2018 congressional election in each county represented by reds or blues and the system of redistricting by state represented by yellows. Two congressional maps from 2011-2017 are then drawn over the the watercolor in lines.
Here’s my artist statement on the project:
“The United States of America is a country of borders and divisions, though the demarcations between places are often abstract and fluid. This is a concept reinforced by our centuries old tradition of redistricting in which politicians draw lines that represent us as citizen voters. These maps, often drawn behind closed doors, are a work of art to be considered. These lines tell the stories of our country through the imbalance of power and evolution of norms. They represent the redlining of votes and tools of authority wielded in the interests of politicians working toward staying in office, as opposed to representing their constituents. One person, one vote is an ideal we have never attained in the election of congress.”
It was mesmerizing to watch your technique throughout the process. Can you elaborate on your technique and methodology?
This was the first map I’ve ever painted that is quite this rich in data. This process was 100% a learning curve. Viewing the end product as more of a pastiche and compilation of maps instead of an infographic gave me a bit of confidence. My goal was to show county results contrasted with lines of the congressional districts to highlight cracking, packing, and also more generally- the entire country as this network of divisions and connections.
I compiled all of the 2018 election data onto county maps of each state for reference in determining the hue and value for each.
I scaled the US Gov county map in QGIS and then Illustrator, printed it on a large format printer, and traced it all onto a 99” x 55” roll of watercolor paper.
Working across the United States I painted each range of values at a time.
I completed the painting in a very focused three months.
Where can we see it?
The exhibit was set to open March 2020, the opening night was cancelled as the country locked down and was never opened to the public. After the shooting of Breonna Taylor and subsequent marches, Metro Hall has remained closed (it is the seat of the government in Louisville, containing the mayor’s office etc.) Just last month the museum / hotel 21C Louisville generously moved all of the work to their galleries where it will be up until January of 2021.
What other map stuff are you interested in?
It’s been fascinating to learn more about the culture around mapping- from the technical GIS to those collecting, archiving, and sharing historic maps. Ours is such an interesting time when we have better access to historic maps online and we have never understood the earth so clearly. I’m really interested in all maps as archives of vernacular and viewpoints of self and others.
My work is in flux at the moment. My main project for almost the last ten years has been to walk around NYC collecting trash to compile onto large scale block by block maps of each borough. I’ve finished and exhibited 71 Square Miles, a map of Brooklyn. The others are now indefinitely paused because of the pandemic. I will finish those but plan to leave and come back another time when I don’t have to worry about not getting sick quite so much.
I’m not entirely sure what types of mapping I’d like to do next but it will hopefully involve bridging aspects of our communal lives with the land and each other.
The intersection of art and maps can be tough for people trained in mapping, but not design. Tell us about your experience fusing them, coming from a design background?
The physicality of creating maps is what draws me to the work. Finding orientation in a place through movements of my hand gives me a feeling of empathy and wonder at the world. In a larger sense I find a connection between my art practice and maps in the design of my life. Though I was trained as a graphic designer and use those skills regularly, those principles transcend all of our lives down to what we pay attention to, how we spend our time, and how we move through the world. Mapping has given me the focus to see the world and I’ve been privileged to share that vision through colors.
Any inspirations or advice to give our technical mapping audience on interjecting art into their work?
Visualizing a process or the feeling of an end product is typically where my projects begin, though I think the main aspect of realizing any artistic practice is to be aware of what actions most inspire you. My goal is often to think of the craziest / largest / most difficult / most repetitive way to represent an idea which also utilizes a medium representing the concept. Media is where our ideas meet the viewers of our work and it’s difficult but satisfying to find a connection between the reasons for choosing one over another.
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?