A: I work in Wellington, New Zealand, as a GIS analyst/ spatial developer at Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) in the Topography team. Day to day, I mostly work in a small team developing inhouse QGIS plugins or processing data using open source tools, but I try to find opportunities to create maps, icons or posters whenever I can. Sometimes its communist style posters about hot desking or Map Man (my coworker who gets called on to save the day with map emergencies), other times it’s more serious, like the Matariki Map.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: The Matariki map came from some really nice constellation design I had come across, which just sat in the back of my head for a while until I finally put two and two together as Matariki was getting closer last year. Matariki is becoming more and more popular in New Zealand, and I live in a small seaside town just out of Wellington that hosts amazing Matariki celebrations with great stories for the kids and walks to find the glow worms, but I still hadn’t delved too deeply into the history of Matariki. I am lucky enough to have amazing tikanga (customs) advisors at LINZ who were able to help me to understand its importance and give the design I had some real depth and background. For me personally the most interesting part of the journey was learning about Matariki’s shifts through history: once, it was a significant celebration, then it was almost entirely forgotten, and now it’s experiencing this amazing revival (including its widespread embrace by Pākehā [settler] culture) due to the emergence of tikanga and Te Reo Māori (Māori language) initiatives.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: This map was made using QGIS, Inkscape and open data from LINZ (data.linz.govt.nz) so I’m gonna use this to tell you about how much I love open source, and throw in a shameless plug for FOSS4G SotM Oceania! I was lucky enough to get my first GIS job after uni at LINZ, where there were already strong champions of open source and open data. Even though my job was a lot different to what it is now, I was still using QGIS and plugins we had developed in house. My passion for open source started properly two years ago, when I was able to go to FOSS4G Boston and more importantly the amazing QGIS users conference in Nødebo, Denmark. I’ve always been an empathetic person (one of my first jobs was a veterinary nurse), and more of a sharer than a hoarder, so it’s no surprise that the incredible community and ideas behind open source made a real impression on me at these conferences. I also love great food and Nødebo was up there with the best I’ve had, which would definitely have helped win me over. Since these conferences I have been tinkering more and more with creating maps in QGIS and using my inkscape poster design skills to add those finishing touches. As well as getting deeper and deeper into plugin development at work, don’t get me started on how amazing automatic testing is. But there is one thing I love more than open source and that’s having a FOSS4G in our own backyard, and this year it is in Wellington and LINZ is helping to organise it! I missed out going to last year’s conference in Melbourne and everyone keeps going and on about how amazing it was so I won’t be missing out on this year’s. Though I did get to go to Boston and Denmark, and a tea towel with my map and logo design was brought back for me, so I probably shouldn’t complain. So if you want to see some of the amazing open source work going on in Oceania, or drag along coworkers to expose them to open source, you should definitely come along on the 12-15 November. https://foss4g-oceania.org/ Shameless plug over.
For the map itself I used a combination of populated places data from Koordinates, as well as highways and elevation data from LINZ. I styled the populated places so that larger cities appeared as brighter stars, and joined them using the major highways as a guide. To create the milkyway like cloud in the background I played with different elevations till I found a coverage I liked the look of. Once the map had been designed I exported to svg and loaded in inkscape. I used inkscape to create the custom font for the title by turning the text to a path (treating it like vector data) and adding in the koru like circle at the end of some letters. I also used it for placing and aligning the text on the side, I personally find aligning easier in inkscape.
Chris Whong is an NYC-based civic hacker, urbanist, mapmaker, and data junkie. He most recently worked as the founder and director of NYC Planning Labs, promoting the use of agile methods, human-centered design, and open technology to build impactful tools at the NYC Department of City Planning. He’s perpetually tinkering with open source geospatial technology, open data, and web projects, sharing his work via tweets, blog posts and speaking events. He teaches graduate level technology courses for Urban Planners at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, promoting the use of open source tools for mapping, data analysis, and visualization.
Chris was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.
Q: Whong’s law states that “Every government agency, everywhere is working on a ‘new system’; It will solve all of their data problems and will be ready to use in 18-24 months.” My 20+ years in government have taught me that you’re 100% right on this, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. Please tell me this will be the subject of your first TED talk.
A: I actually came up with this a few years ago when I was in sales, and was speaking to different state and local governments several times a week. There was always a huge amount of faith everyone had that the “new system” would solve all of their data woes in the near future, but it never seemed to actually arrive. I’d love to do more research on this front, as every government technologist I’ve encountered has some version of this story for “new systems” large and small.
Q: Even after all the gigantic government IT failures, I still can’t believe how many ginormous contracts I see being awarded. (Despite their past success, I’m still looking at this $26 million award with side eye.) But they can’t all be failures, right? Maybe just the billion dollar ones?
A: I think the ones you hear about are the BIG ones… there are probably hundreds of little ones that are just as bad but not big enough to show up on anyone’s radar. There has been some reporting recently in NYC about ballooning construction costs for what should be simple projects like park restrooms. I think you’ll find a lot of the same incentives and poor practices at play in both construction and IT projects. My hunch is that it’s the bigness of NYC that allows for these kinds of things to slip through the cracks. A $14M bathroom is peanuts in a $11B capital budget… and you can’t really inspect that budget unless you’re willing to slog through hundreds of pages of screen printouts published as a PDF.
Q: You recently left your post at NYC Planning Labs. What was your favorite project to work on in that job?
A: That would be ZAP Search. It’s a frontend search tool for looking up information on land use applications in NYC. Basically, anyone who wants to change zoning (including the city) has to go through a governmental process, and there’s an information system that tracks each action. I love this project because we were able to seamlessly integrate spatial data into a non-spatial database. You and I know it’s just a simple join to add geometries to a row in a table, but this has eluded everyone and been a huge excuse for years. In government, spatial is still the realm of “GIS people”, who tend to not be the same thing as app developers.
When you’re dealing with a city that’s the size of New York, the map becomes a critical part of the search UI for making individual projects discoverable. Adding geometries and displaying them on a map goes a long way towards making the data instantly relatable to people. Nobody knows obscure project names or even addresses of things being built near them, but everyone knows where they live and can relate to things happening nearby.
I should add that the GeoSearch API comes in at a close second. (GeoSearch is the autocomplete geocoder API that powers address search in all of our apps) We didn’t even build it, the heavy lift for us was transforming the city’s official address database into a format that would work with the Open Source Pelias geocoder built at Mapzen. It’s a wonderful open source story, and I like to think a contract to build a highly-available autocomplete geocoder in government would have taken years and millions of dollars. We did it in a few weeks, basically for free, by leveraging open source. We also made it publicly available and wrote a nice little documentation site to help people get started using it.
Q: Can you tell us what’s coming next for you? And whether or not you’ll need to add a corollary to Whong’s law?
A: I’m planning to write a book about my 3-year stint in local government (but I know I’ll just get consumed with side projects during my time off!) I want it to be a relatable easy read full of anecdotes and things I’ve learned being a solo open source developer and building a small (but highly effective) digital team. I’ve accepted a position at Qri (qri.io), an open source startup building technology for distributed data collaboration, discovery, and version control. It touches on a lot of the pain points I’ve experienced working with, publishing, and sharing data over the years. I’ll be exploring use cases, building tooling around the core platform, and trying to grow the Qri user community.
Q: Do you think every government organization needs “an 18F” to show the way towards better IT, better user experiences, better designs in government apps?
A: Yes, and it’s important to remember that the culture change is the most important thing these teams bring. The tech tooling is just a fraction of the overall environment. Openness, collaboration, good design practices, continuous learning, introspection/retrospection, sharing, focusing on the user, iterating and shipping code continuously, etc. are what lead to better products. These things require culture change way beyond just saying “use open source software”.
I’ve also described all of the above characteristics as values that are at odds with the way government is usually structured when it comes to tech delivery.
It’s important to think about the long-term sustainability of these progressive values. How do you get them out of the 18F-style team and into the regular standing operating procedure of an agency? How to you make the myriad controls and requirements codified into tech policy support this new way of working? These are things I didn’t stick around NYC Planning Labs long enough to tackle, but they remain issues that my former colleagues are faced with every day.
Q: Have you always been a New Yorker? What do you like – or dislike – about the city?
A: I came here in 2011 to study Urban Planning at NYU. Someone once told me that it takes 7 years to finally call yourself a New Yorker, so I guess I’ve passed that milestone. I always say that once I started getting involved in civic tech, I began bumping into the same people at meetups and events all over the city, and found “my scene”. After that, the big, busy, hectic city got a lot smaller and really felt more like home.
I love that there is so much opportunity here. Whatever you’re interested in, the best and brightest people on the planet who do that thing are either already here or will be passing through regularly. There’s always a meetup or conference, there’s always someone who wants to grab a coffee or a drink, and there’s always someone who knows someone who wants to chat about their bold idea or passion project.
Q: I’m an old school jQuery guy. But I know you’re more impressed with the modern frameworks. What’s your preference and why?
A: My lead developer and I had a healthy React vs Ember debate when I first stood up Planning Labs, and he won because he had better arguments for why Ember was a better fit for a small scrappy team. It’s opinionated, but it brings everything you need for building single-page apps so you can prototype quickly and not have to worry about the myriad parts of the app architecture you would if you were assembling things from scratch. I am still a fan of React, if only because I don’t have to have 3 files open to manage the same component, and I actually like JSX (don’t hate, congratulate!). I was able to squeeze a little React into our portfolio via gatsby.js, the static site generator that powers planninglabs.nyc. Everything else is made with Ember, which we’ve built some powerful mapping integrations with and has served us well.
Q: As a former Carto employee, your GeoHipster cred is already well established, as far as I’m concerned. Now’s your chance to embrace the label, or provide evidence to the contrary.
A: I’m proud of the progressive spatial stack we put together at Planning Labs. We were pulling vector tiles out of the carto maps API before they were officially released (you know, “before it was cool”), and figured out how to consume them with MapboxGL. We even got to play with the new PostGIS ST_AsMVT() function to produce vector tile protobufs right from the database. We pioneered print-friendly web map layouts using paper.css, and even got to automate print map creation for New York Land Use Applications, effectively building GIS on the web with automated data and a custom UI. So yeah, I’m a geohipster and proud! I’m bummed to miss JSGeo this year 😦
Q: As a geographer, does it bug you that so many “New York” teams actually play in New Jersey?
A: I care so little about professional sports that I didn’t even know New York teams play in New Jersey. I didn’t care before and I still don’t care.
Q: What are the merits of a saltwater reef aquarium, and do you provide treasure maps to the inhabitants?
A: A reef tank was something I really wanted to do back in 2010, but I was about to move to NYC and it wasn’t a good time to start the hobby. My wife finally gave permission last year and I’ve been obsessive over starting up the tank. We’ve got a nice 34-gallon reef set up in our apartment with a few fish, some corals, a shrimp, and a crab. It’s high-maintenance, and requires a lot of water production, saltwater mixing, water chemistry testing, cleaning, etc. The payout is worth it, my kid loves to help with feeding and water changes, and the critters all have their own little habits and personalities. The tank is a big stress-reliever, and it’s just fun to nurture a little ecosystem and look to the community for advice and support. I have not integrated mapping or open source technology or into my fish tank yet.
Q: I’m sure our readers in between jobs, or considering a change, would appreciate any final words of wisdom.
A: We were successful at Planning Labs because I refused to compromise on the really important things. I always said “how we build is as important as what we build”, and that meant not doing things the way government IT is comfortable doing them. We still had lots of government cruft in our way over the years, but the basics of modern technology-building were not up for debate, and that made all the difference. By the way, sharing is a BIG part of what I consider to be part of the basics, and is probably our most progressive trait. Half the fun of working on something is sharing the achievements and lessons learned (and the finished product) with others in your community. In my experience, talking openly about what you are working on in government is either discouraged or flat out forbidden.
In summary, figure out what your values are, and apply them to every decision, every project, etc. If your personal values don’t align with your organization’s you will need to fight, defend, and evangelize them at every turn (or go find another organization whose values match yours). The former is preferable if you’re in public service.
Denise is an Aussie who lives in England in the historic town of Winchester. She joined OGC in 2012 and spends her time managing the Communication and Outreach program globally for the consortium. The program handles the planning and execution of marketing, communication and education to raise awareness and increase implementation of open geospatial and location standards by technology providers and users worldwide. Part of Denise’s role is to oversee OGC Alliance Partnerships including representation at the United Nations Global Geographic Information Management (UNGGIM) committee. She is a member of the Board of the Association for Geographic Information in the UK and the Global Advisory Board for the Location Based Marketing Association. Prior to her role with OGC, she worked for over 12 years with the Victorian Government (Australia) in areas of geospatial strategic policy, collaboration and innovation.
Denise was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith and Michael Terner.
Q: Tell us about how you came to work for OGC.
A: It’s a serendipitous story, like most of my career, to be honest. I had been back working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, Australia for just over a year after maternity leave from my second child. Apart from the huge challenge of the VicMap API project, one of the other activities I had been leading was to set up the first OGC Australia and New Zealand Forum. As anyone who tries to work from Australia with people in other parts of the world will know – this included a lot of late night calls. It was during one of these calls that I was chatting with the CEO of OGC and he asked me if I had seen that the position for Executive Director for Marketing and Communications was being advertised. I said yes, and simply asked how their search was going. The response I got was “actually I was wondering if you had considered applying?” I think it would be fair to say that my face somewhat resembled that of a guppy fish (jaw on the floor and no words coming out – was so grateful that I did not have video for that moment). In my daze I asked a few more questions, finished the call and wandered into the kitchen where I then asked my husband what he thought of the idea of moving to a different country for work? He said sure… so I applied and rest is history.
Q: You travel a lot. What’s the best and worst thing about this?
A: Most days I really think I have one of the best jobs you can have in our industry. I love meeting new people, seeing new places and in the 6 years of working in OGC I realised how much I love seeing and learning about the amazing things people use location data for and how that changes the world for the better in so many ways. I feel really privileged to be able to represent the OGC membership throughout the world and to be able to tell their stories and to share the benefits that open geospatial standards can achieve.
It may sound cliche but the worst thing about travel is the time it takes me away from my family at home. Though my kids would say that it is not all bad because mum brings back presents! My rule is that they only get presents if the travel has been to a country I have never been to before and I always look for something that has a cultural connection to where I have been. It does make for some funny stories though. My son when he first started school explained to his teacher that “mum was away on the space station.” He had been confused when I said I was going to the European Space Agency (Frascati, Italy).
Q: You’ve been living in the UK for six years, do you miss Australia?
A: Of course! I will be an Aussie till my last day, but I do love my new country and am pretty lucky to be able to enjoy both places. The coffee scene is slowly improving (Winchester Coffee Roasters has been a life saver – though I did laugh when I discovered the owner learnt how to make coffee in Sydney).
But things I miss most include:
Beaches where the sand stretches for miles
Flake & potato cakes from the fish and chip shop
Sydney rock oysters
Rust orange sunsets – the ones in the UK are more pink in color
The smell of lemon-scented gums after it rains
The sound of magpies carolling in the mornings.
Q: Where does spatialred come from? Is it the blue hair?!
A: Hmm, there are only 5 other people who were involved in the creation of that twitter handle and how it came about is now a bit of an urban legend 😉 All I can say is that it was during a conference in New Zealand. I did have red hair at the time, but no that is not what inspired it. However seems to have stuck over the years and to be fair I do wear red pretty often.
Q: While standards are undeniably important, they are also boring. Can you convince us that they are hip?
A: Oh I love this question! Because I honestly believe they are anything but boring. They are one of the most powerful tools for sharing information and knowledge that we have. They bring people together around common problems and give them a pathway to solving them. Standards cross boundaries and borders in ways that enable us the greatest global insights into our planet that we have ever been able to access. One of my current favorite examples of this is the Arctic SDI,where 8 nations are now sharing data across international borders using OGC’s open standards.
At the end of the day it will be the standards we all agree on and the data that will flow through them that will help the world’s leaders make better decisions.
Location standards in particular help us to share data for all kinds of purposes, like understanding climate change, managing city infrastructure, getting planes safely to their destination and so many other world-changing benefits.
In short standards are the infrastructure that enable us to enjoy access to the incredibly rich information resources the web now provides. You can have the best data in the world, but if you can’t share it with anyone then of what benefit is it? Open location standards are one of the most powerful tools for data sharing around and that is why I think they are hip!
Q: What’s your take on the organically emergent standards, like shapefile, or GeoJSON that did not come out of standards setting organizations? Are they better or worse than OGC standards?
A: The truth is that most of the OGC standards start life in some way outside of the formal standards creation process. New standards are driven by innovation. Yes, you did read that correctly – standards happen because of innovation, not after the innovation has happened as I think many believe sometimes. No set of standards that operate in the web exist without interaction with other standards. We need to all work together to ensure the ecosystem works and the data flows and is visualized where it needs to be. Innovation will always help to create new and better ways of doing things and that is why you get communities developing standards like GeoJSON – though remember this standard is now part of a formal standards body at IETF.
A standard that is created outside OGC is no better or worse than an OGC standard – the most important thing is that the standard meets the needs of the users. I think one of the best developments in OGC in the past 5 years has been the creation of the Community Standard process. This now allows standards that are developed outside of that formal process but are mature, stable and being regularly used to be proposed as an OGC standard and come into the organisation with minimal change.
Q: How, and why did KML (originally a de facto standard) become an OGC standard?
A: In some ways, KML was really our first community standard (though we didn’t have formal process for it in those days). It was before my time in OGC, but from what I understand there was a recognition in Google that the standard would enable more data to be made available in this format if it was an international open standard than to remain a proprietary format in Google. Perhaps a good question to pose to Ed Parsons ;-).
Q: Can you talk about the difference in the process involved in WFS 3.0 and the ‘old’ way of developing standards? Also, are the other WxS services being reviewed?
A: This is my new favorite topic and one that excitingly you will see a lot of progress on in the next twelve months. I have watched a lot of change in the way we make standards in OGC. Word docs have given way to GitHub, PDF has given way to HTML, the range of market domains in OGC have increased, and hackathons have been introduced to complement our technical meeting process. It is important to note that our web service standards are not going away any time soon, but with the innovation in use of APIs it is time we developed some new standards to help ensure we can keep sharing geospatial data. The way we have started to describe what is happening is the following analogy.
Picture a brick house with great sturdy foundations that has been improved and matured over a long time and is currently being very well lived in and serves much of the world’s geospatial data. This is our OGC web services house and inside is WMS, WFS, WPS, WCS, WMTS and OWS Common. But we now have new building materials and methods of creating a house so we need some new standards to help us continue to share our geospatial data in an innovating world. This new house will be called the OGC API. In this house you will find OGC API – Features (formerly known as WFS 3.0), OGC API – Common, OGC API – Maps, OGC API – Processes, OGC API – Tiles and so on. The idea is that both these two houses will continue to co-exist for a long while yet, they will draw from the same data lakes and we will be building bridges to help developers move from one house to the next. Hopefully without too much trouble.
There is a hackathon that will push the development and testing of new specs for a number of these new standards in June this year just prior to our Technical Meetings in Belgium. Keep an eye out for more details and how to get involved. These need industry-wide support, review and participation to make them a great new generation of OGC standards.
Q: Ok, big question: Is spatial special?
A: No and yes. Sorry, fence sitting answer I know. In the big wide world of data – it is just another data type. But it has some unique and important elements about it that mean if you handle spatial data incorrectly you will get really bad outcomes. So I think that there is still an important role for spatial professionals in helping ensure that we use spatial data the right way and ensure we support good evidence-based decisions.
Maybe the question isn’t whether spatial is special or not, but why there still seems to be so much of the world that does not harness the power of spatial data or understand what it can do. Perhaps it is more a question of whether we as a community of practice think we are too special and are yet to really reach outside of our community to the broader world of data users to ensure that the goodness that spatial data can bring is shared globally.
And for what it is worth, I like the words location and place over geospatial or spatial (maybe our language is part of the problem?).
Q: Among your work experience on LinkedIn you list ‘mother’, which is awesome! Can you talk about this a bit?
A: Oh man, do not get me talking about my kids or we will be here for pages more 😉…but you have touched on something that is increasingly becoming an important topic for me and that is diversity. Not just gender diversity, but diversity in all areas – age, culture, language, experience, skills. I am sure it would be unsurprising to many of the readers here when I say that I am commonly either the only or one of a few women in many work situations I find myself in (unless of course it is International Women’s Day). Whilst I will say it is improving, it does not seem to be fast enough.
This year I ran an International Women’s Day event in London titled Women in Geospatial. I invited 3 women who are midway through their working careers to talk about their experience in the geospatial industry and how they got there, but the speakers on the day that had the most impact for me were the 4 women on our early careers panel. Whilst saying that they loved working in the industry, they all still had stories of intimidating all-male interview panels, some but not enough female role models in senior leadership positions and comments on their university degrees not having enough of the practical skills that they need now for their current jobs.
Another pivotal event was during FOSS4G last year in Tanzania when Rebecca Firth (from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and I ran a Diversity in Geo session and had close to 40 people turn up at 4pm on the second day of the conference. This helped to realise just how important it is to be a good role model and that when you are in a visible international role such as mine that we have an obligation and responsibility to help drive and be part of the necessary change.
So yes, I list “mother” as a job and I am very proud to do so, as the balance between work and family is paramount for me. To be honest I have learned so much by having this role in life and it enables me to bring many diverse perspectives to what I do, particularly now that my kids have reached an age where they are explaining the latest tech to me! #DiversityInGeo#WomenInGeospatial
Lastly a shout out to the lovely ladies that have started the WomenInGeospatial network recently, which I highly recommend getting in touch with if you are looking to network with other women in the industry.
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: Hmm, I think (and I am sure my mum would laugh in agreement with this) I have always wanted to do something that would help change the world for the better. I definitely have been able to do a lot in my time both at DSE in Australia and now in OGC that has helped, but we have so much more that we can do and I am really excited to be part of the OGC journey and working with our new leadership. I definitely can’t say that I have totally completed this bucket list item yet, but I am on my way and guess we will need to wait another 25 years or so of my career before I will know if I really achieved it or not ;-).
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: I simply love what geospatial can do and I love evangelizing about it. It is such a good news story and really has the power to change the world for the better. Oh and I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip.
Tobin Bradley is an indoor enthusiast. His hobbies include staring at screens (computers), staring at screens (books), staring at screens (movies), and staring at screens (video games). He wrangles code at Mecklenburg County Government in North Carolina and occasionally writes about it on his blog.
Tobin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.
Q: Good gracious, you’ve been blogging over at Fuzzy Tolerance since 2005! When you started, did you ever think it would last over 14 years? What does that first post make you think of?
A: Something Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame said that stuck with me is the worst code he’d ever seen was the code he wrote six months ago, and that that was always the case. Looking at my first blog post from 14 years ago on Loading .NET User Controls at Run Time, complete with poorly formatted code from one of my 47 blog engine migrations, makes me contemplate the sturdiness of the window across from me and the elevation of this floor.
But it also makes me realize why I’ve never gone back and edited those old blog posts, even the ones that make me cringe. It’s me, or at least the part of me I choose to share. Fuzzy Tolerance started even earlier as (oh it pains me to write this) The Programming Consultant Newsletter, a PDF I’d share with our staff and other local GIS folks every month. I’m an introvert and slightly autistic, the kind of person you’d see at a conference pretending to be part of a wall while eyeing the exits. Writing has always been the way I can help people and express myself. So it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been doing it for so long, and in the event of a civilization-ending zombie apocalypse, I’d probably still write blog posts with spray cans on the sides of abandoned grain silos.
Plus it’s a good way to archive my aging brain. Recently somebody thanked me for a bit of complicated PostGIS-related SQL I shared that I had no recollection of whatsoever. I was pretty sure I was being confused with a smart person until I found the blog post.
Q: All right, let’s back up a little for our readers here. How did you get into GIS…or geospatial…or whatever we’re calling it these days?
I was always headed for something related to problem solving and technology. My parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 in my formative years, a 5KB of RAM powerhouse (if you had the Commodore 64, (a) congratulations and (b) I hate you). It marked the point in my life when I became an indoor enthusiast. The things I managed to do with BASIC are probably still illegal in most states.
Naturally I went to college expecting to become a programmer. Two classes later and I was disabused of that notion. I could do the work, but I didn’t enjoy it. This is a failing on my part; I have an awful time learning things if I don’t have an immediate practical application for them. I realized I didn’t like programming per se, I just liked solving complex and interesting problems. If I weren’t an indoor enthusiast with an aversion to dirt I’d be perfectly happy being an auto mechanic.
During that existential crisis I happened to take Geography 101 as an elective with an amazing professor, Dr. Tyrel Moore. I went in thinking I’d memorize the state capitals, which was what I thought geography was at the time. Boy was I wrong. I was fascinated by the breadth and scope of the subject matter, but I’ve often thought if my first geography professor wasn’t an amazing teacher, I could have gone in an entirely different direction. Thanks, Dr. Moore.
I had no idea GIS was a thing when I became a geography major. With my programming background, it was a natural fit, and the rest is a succession of lucky breaks and happy accidents. We still call it GIS in Mecklenburg County, but once Data Science becomes a hackneyed term nobody uses anymore, I’m sure local government will switch to it.
Q: Your second Fuzzy Tolerance post was on Open Source Software. Even though the first FOSS4G conference (under that moniker) was only a year away, that still seems awfully prescient to me, especially considering that you work in public sector IT. Did you have a crystal ball hidden somewhere? And did you feel like a lonely voice back then?
A: A nice thing about local government is the antiquated technology actively encourages one to experiment with other things. Combine that with my natural nerd inclinations and I was playing around with things like Linux and MySQL and PHP very early on. At that point I had a loose understanding of what open source was; my interest in open source software was born out of practical rather than idealistic considerations.
The big turning point for our GIS group was when we launched an important website using new internet mapping software from our proprietary GIS vendor with much public fanfare, only to have it explode in a furious ball of nothing. We were battling “server unavailable” messages around the clock. We threw more hardware at it. It crashed faster. We brought the vendor in, who gave us a very expensive shrug. It was black-box proprietary software, so we couldn’t fix it. We couldn’t even tell what was wrong.
Fortunately that wasn’t one of my apps, but I had some apps coming down the pipe, and there was no way I was building them around that software. Some people looked cool and important with a pager strapped to their waist; I was not one of those people.
So I tried UMN’s MapServer, not overly optimistic about it because I thought web mapping was too niche for open source software. MapServer was better than our proprietary product in every imaginable way. It was faster. It was stable. It scaled better. And from a programming perspective it was much easier to work with. I released a couple of apps using it, and we had zero problems. It was…awesome.
That opened our eyes. We’re still a mixed proprietary and open source shop, but it’s exceedingly rare that we create something that doesn’t use open source software, and many of our projects are built entirely with open source software. We also release a lot of our software under an open source license. While I love the ethos and spirit of open source software, our use of open source is still entirely for practical reasons. For many problems, it’s the best tool for the job.
Personally, I’ve been rocking Linux at home (currently Manjaro KDE) exclusively for 15+ years. The open source community and ethos feels like home to me.
Q: You’ve been working for Mecklenburg County for a long time. Is there anything special about this organization that keeps you interested and invested?
A: Oh, not really. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to work, but it has the perks and pitfalls of most local governments. If our GIS group can be said to have accomplishments, I don’t think they’re accomplishments other local governments couldn’t achieve.
I’ve been very lucky in two ways. First, I’ve managed to have great bosses. One bad boss and I would have fallen back on my rock guitar god/professional video gamer career. Second, our GIS group does work with all of our government agencies, making for a wide variety of interesting and ever-changing problems to solve. Even after 20+ years (!), I still look forward to coming to work.
Q: I think I first caught on to your blog around when you started writing about customizing Google Maps, which inspired me to do the same for the organization I was supporting. Back then, they were one of the few choices for a slippy map API, but now there’s probably a dozen, depending on how you count. How do you keep up with technology changes, and how do you decide what to recommend/implement at work?
A: Without the constant technology changes, I’d have left GIS at some point. It’s the constant learning that makes this job so interesting.
At the start of every month I write out the things I want to learn more about. It’s my job to investigate these things, but in all honestly I’d do it even if it wasn’t, and I think it’s something everybody should do. It’s very easy to turn on autopilot and keep doing the same thing the same way over and over, but if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing, and if you aren’t growing, you’re shrinking. Literally. You’ll shrink.
I try not to steer the ship by recommending or advocating a particular technology direction unless I’m directly asked or I see an iceberg ahead. I tried that early in my career with limited success. I’ve found it’s much more effective to drop guideposts and let people come to them on their own. When people notice my apps are always up, or that an app does a particular thing they’ve been struggling with, they move in that direction naturally. Otherwise it’s whip-cracking and cat-herding, and I have no talent for those things.
Q: You’ve got a lot of code on Github, like your Bootstrap and Leaflet template. Does your organization actively support you open sourcing your apps, or do you just ask for forgiveness later?
A: Ug, that’s an old one. I should probably redirect that repo to Bryan McBride’s Bootleaf, which is much better. Mine was first (ha!), but as with most things, if Bryan McBride and I both did it, you should go with Bryan’s version.
I wouldn’t say my organization actively supports open sourcing apps (I don’t know of anybody else in the organization that has), but it isn’t opposed to the idea. In the early days it was something I did and waited patiently to see if I was going to be flogged, but these days even crusty old mainframe programmers know what GitHub is. Most people I talk to don’t share their code because they think it’s terrible, which is true. What they don’t understand is everybody’s code is terrible. No matter how terrible your code is, there are people it can help, and there are people that will help you make your code better.
My county has a park locator app. So do all 100 other counties in North Carolina. So does every county in the United States, and probably every local government around the world. The wasted effort and money in government because we aren’t sharing code with each other should be an outrage. I’m not big into leadership by fiat, but making all publicly funded code open source is a law I would wholeheartedly support.
You’ve also open sourced your current GeoPortal, which when I use it, strikes me as the “anti-portal”. This app is so simple, I can use it and browse it even though I live over 1,000 miles away. I have to believe there will be other local governments using this somewhere. Are you aware of any?
A: GeoPortal is a fun project. It’s one we initiated within our group, which is different — most of our projects are initiated by our customers, aka other county agencies. That gives us leeway in terms of design and functionality that we often don’t have on our projects (read: when you see one of our apps with 37 buttons, know that a battle was lost). It’s also very fun modern tech: vector tiles, reactive UI components, progressive web app, etc. It’s good to have one project your group completely owns that can be used to try new things and blaze trails for future apps.
I know places that are using our projects like GeoPortal and the Quality of Life project and our Dirt Simple PostGIS HTTP API, and if they want to give us a hat tip for that, that’s very nice. I don’t like to call them out myself though. Taking something we wrote like GeoPortal and customizing it for their own jurisdiction is a herculean effort (I’ve seen my code), and I don’t want a smidgen of credit redirected from somebody that worked really hard on their app to us. But I’ll say this to others that may be functionally autistic/dead inside like myself: knowing that something you shared is helping other people will touch and affect you in ways you won’t expect. When people thank me for a project I’ve shared, I hide in my office for an hour.
Speaking of hat tips, GeoPortal needs to give a giant one to Brian Timoney. His blog posts on how people actually interact with web sites was a real eye opener, and it got me started on a path of learning more about UI and UX, to the point where the map on GeoPortal is now an optional click (gasp!). For my money, good design is still the most glaring problem in government websites today, and unfortunately it’s an area governments rarely invest in.
Q: Judging by your Twitter bio picture, you’re both a musician and a dad, like me. I personally find that lessons I learn in those two roles can be applied in GIS, in IT, and in public sector work. Have you found the same thing, and if so, are some experiences more influential than others?
A: To call me a musician is stretching the term a bit. 23andme has officially confirmed the dad part though.
My first lesson as a father was that I owe my parents an apology. Beyond that, it’s hard to pick out individual things, as I ama fundamentally different person since my son was born. I have a lot more patience. I understand that people have their own motivations and histories, and if I want to connect with and motivate people I need to understand those things and not judge them. A number of children’s cartoons no longer piss me off. It’s a really strange experience going from not understanding people at all to having a wife and son that I’d step in front of a bus for without a second thought, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Being a musician, aside from the expense of new gear and the noise complaints, is a total quality of life improvement. It builds focus, tenacity, patience, confidence, and peace of mind, all of which translate to your life in positive ways. I did not pick up the guitar at 16 for any of those reasons. I picked it up because I thought it would help me woo women in ways that my personality and stick-like figure did not. Turns out an autistic stick-figure kid carrying a guitar around everywhere is mostly just weird.
Q: Tube amps or solid state? Seriously.
A: If your gear inspires you to play and create music, it’s the right gear. If it doesn’t inspire you to play and create music, it’s the wrong gear. If a Squier Strat plugged in to a Peavey Bandit is what inspires you, make your music and tell all of the gear snobs to stuff it.
But the correct answer is tube amps.
Q: OK, the evidence is building. But I’m starting to feel like I don’t have to ask EVERY interviewee if they’re a geohipster. Would you be OK if I skipped it this time?
A: I have never owned a non-functional scarf, which I think rules out the hipster part. I have also never intentionally achieved “cool”, though after many years of work I have “non-threatening” down pat. It mostly involves smiling a lot without showing teeth. I do own a tie that plays Christmas carols. Do with that what you will.
Q: Any words of wisdom or parting shots for our readers?
A: For my fellow local government tribe, I try to encourage people to be present and thoughtful about everything they do. The most common answer to why a local government does something the way it does is because that’s the way it did it yesterday. This is always a bad answer.
But for everybody, my biggest wish is that people would realize how amazing they are, how important they are to other people in ways they don’t understand, how smart they are and the ways they can and do contribute. Imposter syndrome isn’t a new thing, but it seems to hit the tech field pretty hard. The next time your inner voice is giving you an itemized list of your failures, ask yourself if that inner voice was an actual person, how long would you listen to it before you punched it in the mouth. If the answer is not very long, feel free to ignore that voice and go do awesome things with whatever time you have on this planet. And share some code along the way.
Glenn is a Geographer (B.Sc Geog 93’) and has worked in the GIS industry since 1990 when he first worked as an intern on CAD & GIS mapping for the natural gas pipeline in Victoria, BC. Since then he has been a GIS analyst for both public and private sectors and is known mostly as the founder of GISuser.com, a popular GIS industry news outlet. Most recently, Glenn was the marketing manager (contractor) for GEO Jobe, an Esri business partner, while just this month Glenn has now turned to focus full time on his Tech marketing venture, gletham Communications (www.gletham.com) to focus on evangelism and marketing for GIS companies and geotech startups. Oh… Glenn also has become known for conducting video interviews in his car through the GeoGeeksinCars video series (http://bit.ly/geogeeksincars1). He’s been on Twitter for 12 years as @gletham and spends his time in Victoria, BC, Canada and also in Fort Collins, Colorado (that’s a long story).
Q: Everyone knows Glenn Letham The GIS User. But there is much more to what you do than GISUser.com, correct? Tell us about your other endeavors.
A: GISuser has been a fantastic journey for me and it has been really fun and interesting to manage for the past 15 years. About 3 years ago I got an itch to do more and join up with a “real GIS company” again so that was when I hooked up with GEO Jobe and took up a role in marketing and content creation for them. Recently that came to an end and that has enabled me to now focus on growing my consulting business, gletham Communications (gletham.com) to provide technical marketing, strategy, and communication services specifically for the GIS/Geotech industry. Oh, and I’m also going to double-down and start re-focusing on GISuser and our GIS Career resource, geojobs.biz, along with my business associate Allen Cheves — he’s also the founder and publisher of American Surveyor Magazine and the very awesome LiDAR Magazine – if LiDAR is of interest you gotta check it out! I still maintain and manage the online mobile tech news sites that I founded back in 2004, LBSzone.com & SymbianOne.com. I really enjoy DevMeetups and similar geeky events and have a real itch to organize one again sometime, perhaps an Ignite or DevMeet that coincides with a conference (In the past I’ve helped plan a few of them, including a GeoDevMeetup in Fort Collins with about 200 people – they were awesome!)
Q: What is the secret to a successful social media presence? A narrow, specialized, highly technical content, or broad content including technical content but also cultural commentary and the occasional political jab?
A: Social media really is a different creature for everyone I think. By that I mean, there really is no right or wrong way to do it and “success” is pretty subjective. I’ve definitely been a long time, early adopter of most of the original, big platforms but I’ve also had periodic moments of burn-out which I see happening to many others as well. I guess I’ve been somewhat successful at building a community of followers, the biggest challenge likely has been combining personal and business content into the mix. That can be a real challenge and can also be risky, causing followers to bail out and resort to blocking. I’ve always been a bit of an open book, posting some personal commentary and lots of photos and video. This means that my network doesn’t just view me as a GeoGeek or marketing guy, many also view me as a dog lover, baseball fan, and guy who appears to travel quite a bit, strangely living in Victoria or Fort Collins, CO! For me, this has been useful in building credibility and enabling people to get to know me as if we’ve met IRL. I’m lucky in that I have a fantastic network in the GIS and mobile tech community. This means that I receive lots of great tips, tricks, advanced news announcements and sneak peeks into the future. I think this has really helped to provide me with plenty of great technical content to share over the years. My goal is simply to try and build a reputation as someone who is open, honest, trustworthy, funny, and caring. I’ll admit that I have periodic Twitter “rants” where I’ll slip up and drop a political topic, but you have to admit, it’s tough at times these days to have complete restraint but I’m trying to chill with that! I’m working on trying to be more careful about those topics though as it really doesn’t do any good and simply contributes to division and conflict. I find LinkedIn to be increasingly useful and interesting (although the engineers messing with the platform tend to drive me crazy!) but that’s also where I am 100% business and try to focus solely on technology and business. If I had to describe my “success” I’d have to say it’s come from connecting with awesome people to build a vibrant network, trying to engage and assist/answer questions when possible, and just being myself. If your readers would like to connect with me they can find me on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/glethamComm/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/glethamcomm/)
Q: GeoGeeks in Cars. Other than the obvious Seinfeld influence, can you tell us what inspired you to start this?
A: I’ve always enjoyed doing the “selfie video” thing, I believe the first time I tried that was in 2010 when I took a summer drive in my Mustang convertible on a little trip to the Apple store in Boulder, CO (https://youtu.be/Ude0D3uiShs). Fast-forward a few years and I decided that I wanted a more fun, visual way to interview GeoGeeks. I’ve been a tech journalist since 1999 but honestly, doing interviews has never really been my favorite thing to do in that role so I felt that mixing things up with video would be a great idea (note, one of my favorite episodes to date was this one with the entire Esri startup program team https://youtu.be/aGAZGxTQXZw). Apparently, it worked quite well as I frequently have geeks come up to me at events and say “hey, you do those geek in cars videos!” I believe my first true GeoGeeksincars episode was in Victoria, BC with my friend Karl Swannie, CEO at Echosec. The drive was fun, although a bit bumpy but I really found that both of us were at ease and just having a friendly, light conversation. We actually did go for coffee and it clicked to me that this could be something fun that people would enjoy. Overall, I’ve found it to be a fun way to discuss a topic, particularly as I’m not really interested in creating a podcast. Initially, I started out filming these with a smartphone but I’ve since updated the technology and the quality and continued to get better I think. The next thing I’d like to add is a second or third camera angle so people can see the scenery. Most recently, I rolled a few at DevSummit in Palm Springs, including this solo drive where I chatted about my new adventure (https://youtu.be/RoCILVzqz2Y)
Q: You were just at the Esri Developer Summit. Tell us something you learned there that you don’t think you would have heard about otherwise.
A: I think, overall, I was most struck by how the products are [finally] coming into alignment and offering a similar experience for the user. I’m far from an ArcGIS Pro “guru”, however, curiosity always does get the best of me so I really do like to dabble, test, and try to break new technologies as they come out. I’m also fortunate in that I’ve had access to the software courtesy of Esri and some of the companies I’ve worked for — Esri also does make available software for non-commercial use to developers as well, so this is a great way to access the tools. But back to where I started, I was impressed with what’s coming from the Story Map technology, Web AppBuilder and Survey123. Esri has evolved these solutions using a new architecture and is providing the same, familiar experience which is also very simple to use and can also be very useful to those of us (like me) who don’t code. I really like what I’ve seen recently and I think the users will as well. As an example, I chatted with a Survey123 staffer at the show and he walked me through creating a form and publishing out as a mobile app and feature service. The scenario was a tree inspection app and it took us about 10 minutes in total to create — I was pretty impressed!
Q: More importantly, how did you do in the dodgeball tournament?
A: I’ll be honest, I sat front row and enjoyed a couple of IPAs while the event took place. It really is a blast to watch and is a great team-building activity. Last year I joined a team that was short a player and sadly we were knocked out immediately so my dodgeball career was very short-lived!
Q: When you met Kenneth Field, did he have any cheese on him?
A: No such luck there but that would have been totally awesome! We do know that he likes his cheese and the cheese board map and others that he’s created are truly awesome!! See his blog on creating the cheese board map — our meetup in Palm Springs was pretty cool though. Ken was doing a lightning talk in the DevMeet “Speed Geeking” event so I got Ken for 5 minutes all to myself. His quick talk was very impressive and entertaining — and I did indeed learn a ton about cartography, a real treat! Funny thing, he gave me a signed copy of the amazing “Cartography.” book and the following day he mentioned he was disappointed I didn’t connect with him to roll a geogeeksincars drive. That was my bad as I assumed he was so busy, then he told me he was really looking forward to doing one. Talk about a missed opportunity.
Q: Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: Haha, I know that many of your followers will groan a bit but yup, I’m a bit old-school still and likely best described as being on team Shapefile — oh, and I do have some of the highly sought after “I heart SHP” buttons!
Q: Team ArcGIS or Team QGIS?
A: Well, I have a couple of ArcGIS Online accounts and am still a big fan of Story Map technology and web app builder so its team ArcGIS.
Q: Team Vancouver or Team Fort Collins (and which has better beer)?
A: Bazinga!! Actually, technically it’s Victoria (the BC Capital on Vancouver Island) and that’s a tough call. FOCO is my home-away-from-home for now, however, it may become home in the near future. The sunshine in Fort Collins is totally awesome but overall, the weather and scenery is likely better in Victoria (particularly in summer) and I definitely am at home close to the ocean — I still get nosebleeds when I hit Colorado even after all these years! On the upside though, the people in Colorado are really amazing and the tech scene kicks butt too. As for the beer, Fort Collins has sooo many options and many breweries, plus you can use the patios all year round (except for when a blizzard blows in for a day). The quality and selection of brews in FOCO is better for sure, however, Victoria is up there and you’d be surprised to know that the cost of craft beer in Victoria is much less than in the US and best of all, the Canadian pint is a whopping “proper” 20 ounces — a huge win!
Q: Not too many people know that you were an early GeoHipster advisor. The Poll that launched the site in 2013 was your idea. Having said that, do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: That’s funny and I had forgotten about that. I recall that and was impressed by how you ran with the idea — I think at that time I was simply too saddled with work and life, in general, to take on something else. Am I a hipster? Hmmm, I suppose I am (maybe Hipster-Lite). I do dabble with a number of open source solutions and am a huge proponent of open data. I’m a meetup, devmeet, hackathon junkie and attend whenever I can make it happen so these attributes might help group me in with the crowd. Oh, and I do ride my bike frequently (when the rainy season ends) and I sport a beard 3 months of the year! Interesting side-note, I was instrumental in organizing the first Ignite Spatial events and Esri DevMeetup which took place in Fort Collins, CO – pretty hip eh?
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: Hmmm, well, if you blend personal and professional personas on social media try to stay away from politics, guns, and map projection discussions… you’ll likely get into a war of words! Build a focused online network of connections because you never know when you’ll need them. While doing this, be sure to listen, contribute and help others — that will go a long way. Finally, if you share news/PR with journalists, please don’t do it with a PDF!! Shameless self-promo, and if you need some tips, advice, or assistance, feel free to hit me up @gletham
Britta Ricker, PhD (@bricker) is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University in the Copernicus institute for Sustainable Development. Her research interests focus on accessible spatial technologies, particularly open data and the use of mobile devices. Dr. Ricker co-founded the Masters in Geospatial Technologies at the University Washington Tacoma. She has also provided GIS and cartographic services for the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, MapQuest, and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
Dr. Ricker was interviewed for GeoHipster by Natasha Pirani.
Q: Hey Britta (Dr. Ricker?)! Tell me about your start and your education/career path in GIS, and as an academic. Did you always aspire to be a professor?
A: No, I did not always aspire to be a professor. Not at all. I wanted to have a career in International Development. I grew up in rural western Maryland and I played outside a lot. I liked to follow the water flow downhill, and I would daydream about what was over the next hill. My dad was a preacher and my mother was a high school librarian, they were always helping others and I wanted to do that too. My favorite aunt worked for the United Nations and had/has a glamourous international life in NYC. I always wanted to be her! I thought I would study international politics to get there.
I quickly found that the Geography Department at my university (Frostburg State University) at that time (2002-2005) was particularly strong and the professors were really inspiring. I did not want anything to do with GIS and programming, and I avoided it until one day, Dr. Fritz Kessler, a fantastic cartography professor sat me down, and asked me directly “What are your career goals?” I told him, and he explained to me how cartography and GIS can be used for international development. I changed my major the next day.
There have been so many conferences, events, social media, whatever, where people (men) ask, how can we get more women in the field? Take the Fritz Kessler approach. Don’t tell women or anyone how you think of GIS or how they should think of GIS; bring GIS into their value system, into their frame of reference, their interest. It is a fun challenge.
Q: Have you experienced particular triumphs or challenges as a woman in GIS, academia, and hipsterhood?
Q: You relocated last year to the Netherlands! How has the transition been? Do you ride your bike everywhere?
A: I do love it here. I am still getting used to it. The Dutch labor law and academic expectations don’t always match, which is fun to learn and navigate. Work/life balance is so important, and in the Netherlands it is the law. I was an exchange student to the Netherlands in high school which is a big reason I am here now. I do really miss the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, the region I had lived for the past 8 years. I like riding my bike everywhere, although I am still learning the “rules of the road” and the nuanced social etiquette of urban biking in the Netherlands. I joke and say my bike is my car. It is John Deere tractor green with a big basket on the front to carry my groceries and makes me smile everytime I see it. I am proud hearing my daughter learn Dutch so quickly, she regularly corrects my pronunciation. I am struggling with Dutch, especially since everyone speaks English so well. Mappy Dutch Fun Fact, a bell tower in Amersfoort is 0,0 for the Dutch datum. There is an awesome multimedia, projection map exhibit about the exact place. Forget Amsterdam, visit Amersfoort!
Q: Our earlier conversations have meandered into topics related to critical and feminist cartography and data visualization. What do those concepts mean to you, and how do they intersect with your research interests and your current work?
A: Wow, okay, this is a big question. Critical and feminist cartography and data visualization are two different fields that so obviously overlap but are incredibly difficult to publish together in academic peer reviewed journal articles. Feminism is really a lightning rod term, particularly in Europe I am noticing. Those who react especially negatively to it, I ask them to define feminism and they often say something like women before men. That is not feminism, feminism is about equality, that is it.
Theories are hard to apply, and my experience is that theorists don’t like it when you try, so it is sometimes better to decouple the two in academic writing at least. Feminist cartography is deeply rooted in my epistemology, my way of knowing, and I like to think it informs all that I do professionally. The research I pay attention to and further is informed by my understandings of feminist cartography and GIS and how I hope it can be extended. I have been enjoying working with Meghan Kelly in this type of research and thinking. In terms of research, feminist cartography acknowledges that there are multiple ways of knowing, seeing, and understanding space. Traditional cartography is not the only way. (But I also don’t think we should villainize cartography!) My way of knowing is not the only form of feminist cartography, or feminist ways of knowing. This is what makes incorporating feminist practice into cartography so very difficult; well, one of the things.
I am interested in developing research questions, to measure and evaluate learning outcomes based on specific communication goals, testing different map interfaces. I aim to investigate the use of new forms of technology such as 360 cameras and new, exciting interfaces that are becoming more widely accessible, such as virtual reality and comparing them with traditional 2D maps. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different visualization methods, in terms of what is learned from them — are they simply fun, or are they useful to communicating something specific like the spatial distribution of a phenomenon necessary for resource allocation or other decision making? The research questions are endless, really. Results will change as the technology evolves and the social uptake thereof evolve. I don’t really know how to do this, I could use that wayfinding app that you ask for below…I regularly read and re-read the work of Agnieszka Leszczynski, Nadine Schuurman, Sarah Elwood, Renee Sieber, and each time I read their papers, I get different morsels of inspiration and understand them differently.
Q: You’ve said that you “aim to illuminate techniques to make visualization tools associated with GIS more accessible to diverse audiences.” Tell me more about these techniques and some overlooked or invisible challenges of GIS accessibility.
A: Two come to mind: First, the most obvious invisible challenge is missing data. Missing data is also not sexy because it can’t be mapped, easily. Feminist geography talks a lot about missing data; missing historical records don’t mean that women did not make significant contributions, it just means those contributions were not documented. That holds true today. We make a lot of assumptions, and map things based on social media platforms dominated by specific demographic groups. We have interpolation methods for physical geography — could similar interpolation methods be generated for social geography too?
Second, right now, arguably we all have access to the tools required to make maps in our back pockets. It is just not always obvious how to make them, or why we should make them. Maybe more people would be interested in using another accessible form of technology if it were more clear how they could be useful for communication purposes.
Q: You’ve also explored the potential of drones to be used in participatory action research and citizen science, which sounds super cool. What did you find?
A: Drones are a great example of how increasingly accessible technologies can be used for good, but in ways that are not immediately obvious. Let’s say you take an aerial image of your property every day for one year. Suddenly, the foundation of your house is being eroded away by a new stream that has formed on your property after a heavy rain. You could use a drone to fly during a non-flood event and a flood event to show the difference. If you did this at regular intervals, patterns may emerge. This could be used for legal purposes, or it could be used to learn about your property, or to communicate to a neighbor that they caused this problem because when you looked upstream, you might find land use changes on their property caused flooding in your yard…and that sparks privacy concerns.
I found that the use of drones raises a lot of red flags from a number of different directions. First, legal constraints. Drones are so new — the laws about flying change all the time, and vary between places. Doing research and writing and teaching take a lot of time and energy and to add to that, navigating the legal system was too much. Additionally, I was trying to show how drones could be used for participatory mapping. I got a lot of pushback saying that drones are evil surveillance war machines, and can’t be used for good. GPS was funded, developed and launched by the military, and now we use it to find the closest restaurant or hospital — is that evil?
I am inspired and encouraged by the success of Laura Grace Chipley’s work with the use of participatory use of drones with the Appalachian Mountaintop Patrol (http://lauragracechipley.com/amp). I hope to prove how drones can be used for counter-mapping and advocacy efforts rather than for hegemonic purposes they are known for.
I once had a great conversation with a communications professor about how a simple camera angle pivot on a drone can completely shift the mood of that image. When the camera angle of nadir is 90 degrees – straight down, the aerial photo looks militaristic and utilitarian, whereas with an aerial camera at an angle of 50-60 degrees, it more likely evoke an emotional response of wonderment, beauty and splendor. This technique is used in cinematography. An aerial video to convey the landscape of the environment in which a story takes place is called a phantom ride.
Q: Do you identify as a geohipster? A geosister? Why or why not — and should it even be a binary distinction?
A: You know, I had a traditional GIS analyst job out of undergrad which makes me identify with #GISTribe (also I have been using ArcGIS Pro a lot lately) and then taught myself tools that might be considered part of the geohipster toolbelt. I think the binary is not helpful. A tool or solution should be made to answer a specific question or to meet a communication goal — how it is made is important in terms of meeting the goal, not to adhere to a certain tribe’s constraints. Solutions are often based on what is in the toolbelt.
Q: What’s your favourite mom joke?
A: What does a baby computer call her father? Answer: Data
From the movie HER, such a great movie.
Q: Do you have a favourite map?
A: Wow, this is hard, I do love historic maps. I also really love the hand-painted watercolor maps by @turnofthecenturies (on instagram) wooden laser cut maps. I particularly like the 3D bathymetry maps (http://www.3dwoodmaps.com/). Of course, I love NYTimes maps.
Q: Is there, like, an open source GPS tracker and wayfinding app for lost students to position themselves in their research and find an ideal route through school? Or to find a job afterwards? Or do you have any words of wisdom to share with them (me)?
A: Relax and enjoy the process. I continually reflect on feeling this way during my masters degree, particularly when working with masters students I am mentoring. I was really uncomfortable with this feeling of uncertainty about how to navigate through a masters degree, and then the PhD thereafter. There is no one way to make a map, there is no one way to complete a research project. You just have to document the process and justify your decisions. No one can do it for you, you just have to trust your academic advisors, and if you don’t trust them, trust your gut and get a new advisor. During your masters degree, you learn the research process, which is always messy and though the end is not always in sight, you just have to keep moving forward. A masters degree is like a 10k race while a PhD is a marathon in mountainous terrain.
Q: Any other thoughts to share with the rest of the hipster- and sisterhood?
A: More of a note to self: Be careful to not villainize men. Do not mimic them either. Let’s just all try to be confident without being dicks. What do our maps communicate? Think about who the data is representing, and who is missing.
Harel Dan is a GIS and Remote Sensing analyst based in Israel, and the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag – Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program. Twitter / Website
Harel was interviewed for GeoHipster by Amy Smith.
Q: You’re the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag, Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program. What is HaMaarag, and how does GIS factor into the program?
A: HaMaarag is a consortium of organizations that manage open landscapes, that was set up to provide evidence-based knowledge to managers and decision makers. We run several long-term projects that take place all over the country, in varying biomes and their ecotones, from evergreen Sclerophyllous woodlands to hyper-arid shrubs, monitoring several classes like Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, as well as vegetation. As such, the entire process of planning out, sampling and analysing the data is dependent on locations. Be it precise measurement of monitoring plot corner pegs with GPS, or creating spatially-balanced sampling methods. My job also entails collecting and processing spatial data from other organizations, with their peculiarities and errors.
Q: You do a mix of technical work, coordination with other agencies, and field work. That sounds like an interesting mix – could you describe a typical day in the life?
A: 6:00 AM, Phone rings, ornithologist on the line, asks me to explain to him how to load the background layer to the Fulcrum monitoring app. 8:30 AM, Log on computer, answer email from chief scientist of the nature and parks authority. 10:00 AM, Run the script that scrapes data from that website. 11:45 AM, Finish that map and send it to graphic design. 13:37 PM, Coffee. 14:03 PM, Back in office after wandering around the labs in the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, where our offices are. 15:00 PM, Finish a call with the Open Landscapes head at ministry of environmental protection. 16:00 PM, Send drone orthos segmentation results to the botanist for assessment. 17:30 PM, Put kids to sleep. 19:00 PM, Goof around on whatever personal project distracts me these days.
Q: Based on your Twitter account and website, it seems you also take on a good amount of personal projects. What do you look for in a personal project? Any favorites you’d be willing to share?
A: My personal projects are a mix of disciplines and topics that on the one hand interest me, and on the other can be used as an excuse or reason to delve into something new; a concept, a programming language, a tool, etc. Furthermore, as a Geographer, I think I can bridge the gap between the analytical aspect and the human story it tells. For instance, over the summer I’ve made and published a constantly-updated map of fire damage in the south. I saw that there was a lack of connection between news reports and the scale of the damage that was creating misconceptions and lack of understanding. So telling this story was a chance to try out new internet tools to help streamline the work and be easy to read and comprehend for the general public.
Q: What inspired you to publish your analysis of SAR data to identify military radars? Were you nervous at all about the sensitivity of the subject matter?
A: I was intrigued by a peculiar image artifact when I was trying to incorporate Sentinel-1 data in my landcover classification mapping, which happened to appear mostly over broad-leaves and coniferous forests. After tweaking a Google Earth Engine script I’ve noticed that these artifacts converged over a single constant source, so I’ve figured out what these were. After a year or so of hesitance, asking around what should be the preferred action, and actually getting in touch with the Army, I had a job interview for a company that does SAR analysis, so I knew this would be a perfect time to publish the story. So with a tongue-in-cheek image alluding to some issues publicising the location of the radars in my country (It was a PNG image I made in MS Paint that read [REDACTED], you won’t believe how many people over-analysed this), I posted my findings on social media.
I got the job btw, but declined to take it as the conditions weren’t manageable from my perspective.
Q: You’ve successfully had your work featured in multiple publications. What advice do you have for other geohipsters out there looking to get more exposure?
A: Hustle. Made something interesting? Think you’re onto something? Post it on social media. If your career is not dependent on the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals, there’s no reason not to share your work and ideas with the geo community, no matter how half-baked they are.
Q: What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies?
A: I have a garden with some fruit trees that I tend to when it’s not too hot, but other than that, I’m wholly immersed in being a full time parent to two small kids. Whatever spare time I have, it’s used to wind down and relax with techie reading material, or go on twitter and see what others are up to and engage in the war on Shapefile and banter on that other GIS software.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: I tick about a dozen or so results in the GeoHipster poll tally, so I guess I’m on the geohipster spectrum, even though I never got into the laptop stickers and pin badges fad. Besides, the backside of my laptop screen has velcro strips which I use to firmly attach dongles, chargers and an external drive full of hoarded geodata to reduce desktop clutter, this way I have room to place old printed atlases, a working sextante, PostGIS cheatsheet… OY MY GOD I’ve just realised I’m a geohipster.
Q: Any final words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Don’t use Twitter’s Bing-based translation tool, it’s horrendous.
Michael Gurley came to the Geo-field accidentally, burned brightly across the early GIS skies, relished being a small fish in a small pond, fought hard to keep the mystic arts secret from the unwashed masses, was an unapologetic ESRIalite, and then experienced a conversion to the “GIS is just a tool” doctrine, and now looks at any single-solution disciple with disdain…or at least a heavy dose of skepticism.
Michael’s only dedicated online presence is an embarrassingly sporadic blog…about climbing, and other pedestrian adventures.
A: Completely by mistake. Two years of pursuing Civil Engineering was abandoned, in a fit of frustration…while suffering through Differential Equations with Linear Algebra (DiffEQ for short), for the more “squishy” liberal arts degree in Geography. It appealed to my love of history, culture, and…of course, maps. I figured I would end up teaching. But, in my senior year at University of New Hampshire, I joined my housemates (all geography/geology students) in an on-campus work-study opportunity. We were all using workstation (I believe it was 5.0) ArcInfo to digitize South American deforestation. I blame two years of squinting at black and white LandSAT photos through a digitizing puck crosshair for my currently degraded eyesight.
Q: You and I worked together over 20 years ago. Do you miss GIS in the 1990s? ArcView, shapefiles, coverages…
A: 20 years ago? Those were good times. Yes…and no. I don’t necessarily miss the technology. I actually loathed ArcView when it first appeared on the scene. And…ArcCAD? PC ArcInfo? Ugh! What I do miss was the “newness” of the field at that time. We were kinda rockstars….at least in our own nerdy minds.
Q: Do you miss New Jersey?
A: Again…yes and no. I don’t miss the Garden State as much as I miss friends and family that still reside there. When I moved to Oregon in 2011, my new boss nicknamed me “Jersey.” After a while, I stopped fighting it, and just embraced the moniker.
Q: Your name is on the 1999 Digital Parcel Mapping Handbook published by URISA and the NJ State Mapping Advisory Committee. Are you still involved with digital parcel mapping? Has the methodology changed in the last 20 years?
A: That thing is still around?!?!? Maybe that’s a sign that parcel mapping HASN’T changed as much as I would have thought. I’m not involved in parcel mapping anymore. I did work for a while at Oregon Department of Revenue, in their Property Tax Mapping section. Similar work, but a lot more concerned with utilizing property survey source data to construct the tax parcels. I would hazard a guess that the basic premise is still the same, just a lot more snazzy tools available to the practitioner.
Q: Tell us about your current job. What do you do at work?
A: Five months ago I accepted a position with Oregon Department of Transportation. For the first time in over 20 years, I am doing something that is not directly connected to GIS. I am a “hybrid” Project Manager and System Analyst with Transportation Application Development (TAD). Our particular team supports the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) business within ODOT. It was a huge leap for me to leave my GIS comfort zone, but I believe it was time for me to grow, expand, and be challenged.
Q: I know you use QGIS. Exclusively or not? What other tools do you use on a daily basis?
A: Now that I don’t have access to ArcGIS at work…yes, I’m striving to learn the ins-and-outs of QGIS. It’s purely for personal use. I have a pretty extensive collection of local hiking trail data that I’ve collected with GPS, and am undertaking to port that data from the personal geodatabase that it’s stored in to something more useable with QGIS.
Q: How does QGIS fit in within the mission of your organization?
A: Within ODOT? It doesn’t. ODOT’s GIS shop falls squarely in the Esri camp.
Q: Where do you stand in the data formats wars? Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: I always disliked shapefiles. They never felt “stable” or precise enough for my tastes. My desire for data integrity was more satisfied by the geodatabase…ESPECIALLY when it came to enforcing topology rules. As a QGIS novice, I felt like I was having to take a step back, and settle for shapefiles. So, when I “discovered” the geopackage option, I was an immediate convert. Time will tell if I actually chose the “BetaMax” (or not) of GIS data formats.
Q: You commute on an antique store bike. This is super hip. Geared or fixie? Tell us all about that.
A: I would dispute the antique label. My current bike (a 1996 Univega Rover 304) is neither “belonging to ancient times” nor is it “of high value because of its considerable age.” I picked it up for $35. Because of its LACK of monetary value, I am much less fearful of it getting stolen and I’m much less hesitant to experiment with performing repairs on it myself. It’s geared. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. I don’t even KNOW what a fixie is. Single speed? That doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe I should look into it someday.
Q: Do you have any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Portland is where all the hipsters reside. I don’t have the time to compete with that scene. Salem has some occasional glimmers of hipster, but my theory is that Salemites maintain a perverse sense of pride in not buying into the pressure of competing with the Portland scene. Salem’s response to “Keep Portland Weird” is “Keep Salem Lame”. Not to get overly philosophical about it, but I think if you are TRYING to be a hipster…you’re doomed to failure. Reminds me of the late 80s when a lot of my brother’s friends thought “being punk” consisted solely of spiking their hair and wearing a lot of studded leather. Hipster or punk. It’s an individual state of mind, not a fashion statement. Here ends the lesson.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: 2009 through 2012 was a particularly turbulent time in my life. Moving cross-country away from friends, family (especially my kids) was the hardest decision I ever had to make. The only thing that kept me sane and grounded was getting out into the wilderness to hike, backpack…and eventually climb. Check out my sporadic personal blog for an essay regarding “Why I Climb” (https://mikestracks.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/why-i-climb/) if you are so inclined (no pun intended). Coincidentally, the essay had its genesis in an innocent comment by this blog’s very own founder (thanks AE). My life has much less personal drama now, but the love of the outdoors remains. It is still a healing and rejuvenating activity for me. I’ve seen and done things that I previously thought weren’t possible for “normal people” like me. Besides this new-found adventurous side of me, I can totally “geek-out” with a group of friends playing tabletop board games or role-playing games. I have a lazy indulgent side also. On a warm, dry, summer Oregon day, nothing beats sitting on a winery’s veranda, overlooking the vineyards, sharing a bottle (or two) of local wine with someone special.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: “The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends.” –Tom Brown, Jr.
Courtney is a product manager at the Canadian Digital Service. Before joining the public service, she worked at Esri building products to connect local governments and their communities using open data. She has a BA in Urban Systems and GIS from McGill University. She lives in Ottawa and is moderately active on Twitter. Courtney was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: Growing up I was enamoured with big cities (living in the suburbs where they’re just out of reach will do that) and was glued to the computer (see: suburbs). I took an elective geography class in high school because it had an urban geo unit, and that’s where I learned about GIS. We used ArcView 3. I remember creating shapefiles of the neighbouring plaza’s building footprints and mapping the GPS points of garbage. I loved the mix of art and science that GIS brought — the data collection, analysis, and communicating information in a clear and appealing way. It was a way I got to flex whatever creativity or eye for design I had while being rooted in science, which was typically more of my strong suit. I also got to be on the computer, so, bonus! My first GIS map is still kicking around in my dad’s basement somewhere. It’s not The Garbage Map, but it is definitely a garbage map.
I was amped to learn more in university and dive deeper into urban applications of GIS. I wanted to be a transportation planner but got wooed by the open government data movement that was taking off, and that set my course.
Q: You currently work for the Canadian Digital Service. What is the mission of the Service, and what do you personally do there?
A: The Canadian Digital Service uses digital skills and knowledge to make it easier for people to access and use government services. We partner with other federal departments and work to improve the services they provide Canadians, and while doing so we’re sharing with our colleagues a different way of working in government – a way that’s open, interdisciplinary, and puts the user first. We’re trying to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.
I’m a product manager, so I work on a delivery team of designers, researchers, and developers, and engage with partners across government to make sure the right thing gets built at the right time. It’s a lot of different hats.
A: Yeah! The team really is fantastic. I think it’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do, especially when we’re the new kids in town and we’re working with public servants that have been doing this hard work for years. We’re not sweeping into departments and shaking them up, but aiming to empower folks who have been moving to work in a more modern way all along. I feel incredibly supported as an individual working at CDS, but I don’t feel like it’s really about us in the end. I’d encourage anyone who wants to tackle some big issues for the greater good to apply–we’re looking for roles across the organisation and you don’t need to be Canadian.
Q: Prior to your current position you worked at Esri DC, where you focused on ArcGIS Open Data. Was that big / open geodata, or just data?
A: It was just data. ArcGIS Hub (née Open Data) supports both spatial and non-spatial data, though of course the majority of datasets people published were spatial — raster or vector. I think that’s mostly of a function of it being Esri but also that the majority of data out there has a spatial component.
Q: Is spatial still special?
A: I’m not sure spatial is inherently special, but local gov GIS teams are incredibly well equipped to spearhead a city’s open data strategy and open data services. They hold a ton of data, and we’ve seen more GIS folk use their data to tell stories and share information rather than simply sharing shapefiles — they’ve moved beyond reaching only the civic hacker or data journalist. Your average person on the street doesn’t care what a shapefile is. Lots of people just want to know if they’re buying a home in a safe area and to make sure their kid can walk to school without a high chance of getting run over. Having those kinds of geo-infomediaries that put insights beside data empowers more users to make decisions and insights of their own.
Over my four years at Esri we saw incredible information resources emerge from what started as simple open data sites. Some of Esri’s users went from being GIS analysts at their local government to being the city’s Chief Data Officer, others have developed partnerships with Waze, others are engaging with schools and showing students the value of open data. GIS shops can really open the door to greater public uses and applications of information beyond just sharing data.
Q: Tell us about life after Esri.
A: Life after Esri was tough at first. Leaving Esri was tough. It took a long time to feel comfortable and productive at my first long-term job out of university, which I imagine a lot of young women in tech can relate to. I had established relationships, a community of practice, and a reputation, and then I took a leap and moved to a new city to start a new job in a new field where I didn’t have any of that. So it was a bit of a lonely reset. The first few months were challenging and scary and uncomfortable, but I need to feel challenged and scared and uncomfortable in order to grow, and I don’t regret it. Plus my rent is cheaper.
I miss geography, GIS, and DC’s incredible geo community. Twitter provides me an endless stream of geo FOMO.
Q: What drove you to come work in the US? What drove you to return to Canada?
A: Both times were for jobs; I’m very lucky I could pick up and move like that. I attended the 2014 OpenStreetMap conference in DC and met people from Esri which led to the move south of the border. It was the best thing I could have done at the time and I didn’t think twice about it.
During my time in DC I was introduced to 18F and the United States Digital Service, and then gradually followed Canada’s growth into digital government — Code for Canada forming, the province of Ontario hiring a Chief Digital Officer and creating the Ontario Digital Service, and then the Canadian Digital Service being born. I wanted a closer look at how government works and it’s an exciting time to work in digital government in Canada. It’s also great to be back closer to my family and to have real winters again.
Q: PBR features regularly in your Instagram feed. Also bikes. Any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Ha! Damn, outed. In my defense, PBR is a fine dock beer and we recently got out of dock season here in Ontario. Back in DC my pal Max hosts an annual hipster triathlon: swim 20 laps of a public pool, run around a track for a while, then bike to a brewery wearing funny clothes. I loved it. Other than that, I don’t think about what it means to be a hipster or what hipster attributes are. Maybe that makes me one. Whatever.
Q: Canadians are nice and generous. What else are they?
A: I struggle a bit with defining Canadian identity because It’s filled with so many different types of people from different geographies. I think Canadians have a witty, satirical, sometimes dark sense of humour. We are incredibly diplomatic and while polite, our politeness is often just a way to mitigate our fear of confrontation, and sometimes that turns into passive aggression. We have great musicians that we’re fiercely defensive of. We get excited when anything Canadian appears in American pop culture and we take the jokes in stride. We have parental leave!
We also have our fair share of hate crimes and racist harassment, a version of Breitbart, a history of Indigenous genocide that still carries through to today, and a white nationalist running for mayor of the largest city in Canada. That’s harsh, but I feel Canada is frequently cast in this utopian light where the only news is a deer strolling in a Tim Hortons drive-thru. It’s a mix of good and bad. It’s like any place.
I often pass this book in the window of a local bookstore, and I think it sums it up:
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I’ll hang onto whatever variation of geographer identity I can get nowadays.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you’re wavering about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone, just go for it, especially if you’re young. As my new coworker Lyn says, what’s the better story when you’re eighty?
Also, here is my favourite song that features map projections:
*The irony of this video not working in Canada is not lost on me.
True to the hipster theme, Adam is a consultant-at-large on open source spatial systems and problem solving. He’s a real doctor in the academic sense, and has a truly multidisciplinary outlook on geospatial and web technology, as seen through the lens of developing human capacity to evolve and create a better world as we work out our existence in the one we have.
With a CV covering field research on sea ice, infrastructure-scale data services, professional bicycle repair, and cat herding on wilderness walking trips, he’s a stander-upon-the-shoulders-of-giants, and definitely thinks way too hard about society, human evolution, infrastructure-scale technology, geospatial magicking, and penguins. Adam was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.
Q: First off the bat, you recently attended FOSS4G in Dar es Salaam. What did you think?
A: I’ve been sitting on a blog post about it for a month. It’s been super hard to wrap up because it’s Africa + FOSS4G rolled into one. This FOSS4G really impressed on me more than anything how open source geospatial software, open data, and the communities around it can make real, on-ground change in the world. I’d never been to Africa before, and really was swept away by the experience. I made a point of travelling by foot as much as possible, trying to see the rhythm of the city, and how it works – what happens outside the western tourist cocoon (as much as that is possible). I drank a bunch of coconuts, and wished I could speak Swahili. I saw a lot of excellent technical talks. Some I didn’t expect to see, some on my ‘must-see list’. There was also a huge amount of discussion on the human and community aspects of our geospatial world. I listened to many stories, and came home with a soul full of hope about the future. However, to realise that future I’ll quote Mark Iliffe: “It’ll take all our resources, and all our privilege”. That’s an undisguised call – especially to people like me who really have very few barriers to overcome – to listen, reflect, and act. See the barriers other people face, and use our privilege to help tear them down. What sticks in my mind most from this iteration of FOSS4G was a real focus on overcoming challenges. Getting over 100 people to a conference via travel grants. Wow! Running a 1,000 person event in Africa. Wow! Walking the streets of Dar Es Salaam every day for a week. Wow!
Q: How was Zanzibar?
A: Personally, I’d intended Zanzibar to be a full switch off. Maybe at most walking to a beach every day or something. Instead, I offered space in an AirBnB I’d booked to some of the OpenDroneMap team, and ended up in a whirlwind. Still, it was inspirational. Having just finished a big conference, I did have some time to absorb and reflect on the conference in the context of Africa. One thing which struck me was the extreme inequality of life there. Literally next door to each other were 5 star tourist resorts and locals in basic homes cooking over fire. Another was how well society appears to function in chaos. Australia seems really rigid and afraid by comparison. I also appreciated the ‘on ground’ experience of the OpenDroneMap team, in particular Stephen Mather (a Zanzibar regular). It inspired an idea about how the geospatial community can be similar. We’re all trying to make progress, but like Zanzibar, there can be myriad and strange labyrinths to navigate. A friendly guide can go a long way.
Q: You live and work in our nation’s capital Canberra, what’s that like?
A: It’s awful, don’t come here. It’s seriously unaffordable. …actually it’s one of two cities in Australia I’d live in, the other being Hobart. Canberra’s most famous attribute is that it’s two hours from everything – the sea, the snow… and actually about 45 minutes from splitter cracks and heinous slabs on chunky granite if that’s your thing. It’s sometimes my thing. Its secret attribute is that in most suburbs, you can be in relatively uncurated bushland in about ten minutes on foot. As a full time cycle commuter, I also like that I can pick a bunch of routes through forests and parks, instead of battling cars. Unfortunately, like many places, Canberra is losing its urban wilderness in favour of cookie cutter housing estates.
Q: Your job involves doing a lot of work with PDAL. Do you like it?
A: Yes – PDAL is a fantastic toolkit. I really only explore a tiny part of it at the moment; there’s as much I don’t know what to do with it as I do know. It’s a real case of standing on the shoulders of giants. It has its limitations. One of the best things is that Howard Butler and team are very much cognisant of those up front – and provide as many means as possible for others to add new tools in ways which suit them. It’s an honest toolkit, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. One of things that it is, however, is being really useful!.
Q: What’s something interesting we don’t know about LiDAR?
A: All LiDAR instruments quite literally capture a point cloud – a little fuzz around whatever surface is being measured. I did a lot of work tracking down noise in LiDAR measurements, ending with hanging a LiDAR scanner in a lab and scanning a concrete floor for a few hours. Did we get a flat scan? No. We could fit a flat regression line to the data with high confidence, but the points themselves sat inside a neat biconcave envelope described by a function of range, scan angle and angular encoder uncertainty. The shape of this envelope is different for different instrument styles – line scanners, circular/ellipse pattern scanners, solid-state beams – but the fuzz is common to all LiDAR instruments and measurements.
Q: Does working with point clouds make you look down on the 2.5-D nature of regular GIS?
A: Not at all. In fact I barely understand a lot of ‘regular GIS’ things. My geo-training started with a lot of concern about minutiae – getting data right for an incredibly specific task (sea ice research); so in ‘standard GIS’ domains I’m still almost completely lost. I get there, with a lot of help from friends. And so much can still be done with good old 2D/2.5D analysis! I still like to push toward a 4, or 5D world – we can capture reality in 3D; capture time plus space, then time plus space plus insight – what we glean from analysing the world in space and time. We humans do this all the time, in fact, you’re doing it right now reading this – we really exist in at least 5D…
Q: Shapefile or GeoPackage?
A: GeoPackage! Although to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to have a proper discussion about why. Although – I can store a neat little SQLite database in there with points, or data boundaries… plus metadata… and it’s nicely self contained.
Q: You did an undergraduate in Neurobiology, Honours in Antarctic studies, and a PhD in Surveying. Why?!
A: The glib answer is why not? The true story is this (grab a beverage and a seat..): I actually applied to art school as a fresh out of high school kiddo – and didn’t get in. I hated school and did the bare minimum to pass. So my creative work really wasn’t up to scratch. Finding jobs was hard in the early 1990s, but I did OK at science and based on that, found employment as an assistant in a neurophysiology research lab. Mixing chemicals, making electrodes, anaesthetising sheep, slicing up brains and mounting slides. A couple years in, I figured it was university time – and naturally started a brand new degree program on cognitive science. This morphed into psychology/neurophysiology because I failed uni level maths (little did I know… I ended up doing two more years of solid stats… same same). A final year elective in Medical Anthropology made me question everything. So I quit, went to work as a teaching aide in a technical college, then picked up a job as a web developer based on a side job I’d had making websites back in the late 1990s. Fast forward a few years – career change time again. I applied for an honours year (4th undergrad year/masters year) multidisciplinary program in Antarctic science, got in, moved to Hobart, and went through an intense ‘in the deep end’ education in Antarctic physical and ecological systems, logistics and international law. Plus a research thesis on estimating ice floe sizes from airborne imagery.
I went straight to work (a few days after I dumped in the thesis) guiding people on Tasmania’s Overland track for a couple of summers, and being a semi-homeless outdoorsy drifter. In 2007 I was offered a job as a tech officer to support a sea ice research voyage – and abandoned my plans to move to New Zealand and become a mountain guide. I went south three years running – operating an aerial photography program and field validation measurements, progressing to LiDAR flight operations and running a bunch of GPS units until, in 2009, a PhD project was devised. I was awarded a scholarship and I went for it! The project was all about measuring sea ice elevation using airborne LIDAR, then estimating ice thickness based on some empirical modelling from that. I also needed to know the uncertainty of every single point in the point cloud – so a lot of maths (that thing I suck at) ensued. And geodesy. And three years discovering that most of the data we had so far are terrible and designing an experiment to fix that. Finally, in 2012, the plan came to life and we got what we needed to finish the job. In summary, we surveyed moving objects. I deployed the first ever robotic total survey on East Antarctic sea ice, using it to set up a coordinate system that drifted with the ice. And then, used the data to link airborne, on-ice and under-ice observations and create a PhD thesis. I got to ski around sea ice with a surveying prism; and also drilled a lot of holes in the ice. Oddly enough, my best topic at high school was geography – so the circle completes eventually…
A: Oh man. This is absolutely terrifying! And the momentum is huge! So late in 2017 there was a bit of noise in a Slack channel about organising a conference. And fast forward to now it seems to have just happened organically, and hugely. As the sponsorship coordinator my life has been really easy — the sponsors come to us! It’s been great to work with the committee, we disagree quite a lot and I have some really crazy ideas – some of which made it (yay!) – and others which really needed some moderation/re-appraisal. Whatever happens, we always manage to get something done – we all seem really good at compromise where it’s appropriate – and importantly in directions which aim to make a positive change. Which is always the grease that gets stuff moving, right? I’ve learned an awful lot from everyone in the process. We haven’t met all our goals – we wanted a perfect gender balance, we wanted to have much greater representation from indigenous communities, we wanted … the universe on a plate. What we *have* done is tapped into a rich vein – and exceeded our expectations about community interest. We have a fantastic program, and can do our best to make some audacious moves in shaping how this community can evolve as we steam ahead. I’m really looking forward to turning up – and all the buzz that happens to get the final wrinkles ironed out. I really hope we can keep this momentum going, and engage even more of the open geospatial community in our region next year!
A: It’s a call back to my psychology days – we discussed a lot how our environment shapes how we are able to perceive the world. One trip to Antarctica I was watching penguins cross fast ice for a while, and had a lightbulb moment that made me giggle – the parallel between conformist work environments and penguins is obvious. The hilarious part was how penguins solved these seemingly simple problems – and this dawning realisation that humans can fall into those same patterns.
At the end of the day I hope it’s a way to encourage reflection on the rules we make up for ourselves, and have some fun.
Q: Favourite craft beer?
A: Right now, when I order a bespoke beer, I’ll grab a Bent Spoke crankshaft IPA. Or a Velvet Cream Stout from the Wig n Pen. Canberra has a couple of awesome microbreweries, all within cycling distance of course!
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: That’s a tough one. To pick on one thing – getting to South America, the last continent I’ve never visited. With my skis and climbing gear. And banging out perfect telemark turns down huge mountains. I’ve only been in airports in Asia, come to think of it.. So there’s #2.
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: To tick off some boxes? I telemark ski in the backcountry, ride bikes, climb rocks, have a beard, and have a collection of obscure paper maps… January Makamba, the introductory speaker at FOSS4G 2018 summed it up well: we are a socially conscious community. We want to help create and maintain amazing tools that are well crafted, functional, accessible, and contribute to a world we want to keep living in. The core hipster ethos of care about what we do, and how it impacts our world, definitely resonates with me strongly. Add some geo, and there we are…