A: My name is Zoey Armstrong and I’m a graduate student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I’m currently working on my Master’s of Geography and my thesis is examining the effectiveness of species distribution modeling using citizen science and herbarium data. Besides researching, I enjoy going out on hikes and improving my field botany skills, making maps, and playing board games.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: I was initially inspired to make the map because one of my professors who I TA for, and who also knew I’ve made similar type maps in the past, wanted me to create a demonstration on my map-making process as a teaching tool for the students. With that initial push, I started considering some ideas. Pretty early on I decided I wanted to use an antique map as the base map. I had seen similar things done with old USGS survey maps and I thought it was really cool being able to bring an old map to life with new data and technology. So after a bit of searching around online, I found a map of the Azores from 1899 by M. J. Thoulet and was immediately in love with it; I could tell the contour lines in the original map would look really good in 3D and I also liked that I could give the final product a more abstract feel.
One challenge I didn’t anticipate was getting a hold of a high-resolution copy of the map. I could only seem to find low and medium-resolution images until I found that it was hosted in Harvard’s records collection. I decided to send out an email to the records division to see if I could get a high-resolution download… and it worked! I thought it was pretty cool that I had to interact with Harvard for the project. One thing I learned through this project is that hand tracing bathymetry lines takes a lot of time. I have a new appreciation for everyone who helped digitize old geographic records.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: To create everything, I first found the old map of the Azores, then downloaded a combined topography and bathymetry dataset from GEBCO. I used QGIS to clean up and export the raster as a PNG where I could add it to an Autodesk Sketchbook Pro project. Sketchbook is a free barebones version of photoshop and that’s where I chose a color scheme and hand traced the bathymetry files. From Sketchbook, I exported two images: one in color that represented the final look of everything, and one in black and white to be used as a displacement input in Blender. This displacement input transforms a flat plane into a surface with all the peaks and valleys seen in the final map. Then a light source is added to the scene, giving the final render its accurate highlights and shadows. Overall, I enjoyed making the map, but definitely got a little carried away with it for a bit.
Ayodele Odubela is Founder and CEO of FullyConnected, a platform for reducing the barrier to entry for Black professionals in ML/AI. She earned her Master’s degree in Data Science after transitioning to tech from digital marketing. She’s created algorithms that predict consumer segment movement, goals in hockey, and the location of firearms using radio frequency sensors. Ayodele is passionate about using tech to improve the lives of marginalized people.
Ayodele was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.
Q: Our readers are mostly in the “geo” industry, but many of us consider data scientists like yourself to be kindred spirits. Can you tell us your story about how you got started in tech?
A: It was definitely a shaky kind of start. Like a lot of college students, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I had been a computer science major, a film major, and even studied athletic training. When I ended up at computer science, it felt close, but not exact. Around 2010 or so, I was coding in C++, but didn’t feel like I was learning. I had a lot of digital media experience from my film studies degree, so I ended up with a digital communications undergrad degree. That allowed me to work in marketing for a few years. I did some social media marketing, and landed at an app company, doing social analytics with A/B testing, in-app messages, and that sort of work. By the time that startup ran out of funds, data science was starting to become more popular, like “the sexiest job in the 21st century”! I went back to school for a Master’s in data science. This felt like a good next move. Since then I’ve worked for all kinds of companies doing a wide variety of work, like sensor recognition for firearms.
Q: Ethics in tech is having quite a “moment” – or maybe you might say a decade. You’ve been quite vocal on Twitter about Google’s recent firing of Timnit Gebru, as have many others. If you’re a technologist inside an organization that is making questionable decisions, what is your first move? Where do you draw the line between trying to change an organization from within, versus speaking out against it – and probably leaving?
A: I think it comes from having really hard conversations. Hopefully you’re in a workplace where a respectful challenge is seen as a good thing. I’m thankful that I’ve been in workplaces where I’ve felt enough freedom to bring up these types of problems, and bring up difficult conversations. They don’t always lead to change, but at least I’ve surfaced specific issues.
I think for a lot of technologists, the first move is to start talking to management about existing policies. A lot of times people break policies without realizing it. Take policies around things like proper data use and cyber security: we get trained, but we’re human and still make mistakes. We’re not always on top of it.
By first going to management, or a trusted manager, you can start to discover the incentives and the reasons why certain decisions are being made. I think you’ll often find it’s profit or revenue based, and in some instances I’ve been able to persuade teams to change their course of action by generating different processes and systems that don’t have such significant issues.
For example, in a past role they wanted us to create a tool that predicted someone’s gender based on their name. When this was first brought to me, I thought, “this is something we shouldn’t do”. I went digging and brought the “5 whys” to the problem.
It turned out, the marketing team wanted more data for push messaging and in-app notifications, because they noticed stark differences between how women and men interacted with the product. So, they didn’t have a nefarious motive, they just wanted more information – but they were still going about it in the wrong way. Instead of using that gender classifier, I created a user classification model to help them with this segmentation.
These decisions are going to be different for everyone. I personally have a lot less that I would deal with before leaving, because I have an intimate knowledge of how badly this kind of thing can hurt people. With the knowledge of the incentives behind organizational decisions, it should be easier for technologists to set their boundaries. Like with Timnit’s firing, if you’re in a situaton like that and you realize that the organization isn’t committed to being ethical or transparent, it can make it easier to leave.
For me, seeing that situation, where part of an organization that was labeled as “Ethics in AI” went and fired one of their leaders for speaking out, that was kind of the last straw for me as a user. But that can be very scary, especially the closer you get to it. Since technologists in the past have felt like our role is “neutral”, it’s not fun to think about law enforcement coming to your house because of the job you’re doing, when you’re just trying to tell the truth.
Q: You recently published “Getting Started in Data Science”, which looks like a great way for someone new to launch into your field. Can you tell us more about the book? What compelled you to write it? What will readers get if they buy it?
A: I was compelled to write this book because I had a hard time getting started in Data Science myself. I didn’t have a very technical background, and I was struggling to learn things like statistics and coding in what felt like a vacuum. Once I got to grad school, there was a snowball effect of learning; I began building on prior experiences, and getting help through real-life conversations.
Then when I got into industry, I was shocked by how even the learning from grad school didn’t match what my employer wanted me to do. In this book, I share a lot of industry knowledge that I’ve gained, like managing project deliverables, juggling stakeholders, that kind of thing. Readers get an introductory book that contains a lot of hints and tips that I didn’t have when I started.
Readers will also get a clear path into Data Science, depending on where they’re starting from. They can go the academia route, use boot camps, or some other journey, and I’m giving them details on their path from there, in particular how to leverage the domain knowledge they may already have. People come into this field from so many different backgrounds; it’s nice to transition into it when you already have some understanding of the domain’s important metrics or KPIs. I think the book is especially good for career transitioners, so they can leverage some of that prior knowledge in the next chapter of their career.
(To our readers: Ayodele is generously offering 25% off her book to our readers with the code GEOHIPSTER. –Ed.)
Q: I think a lot of our readers in the geospatial industry will recognize that advantage. There are a lot of us who are well-versed in one or two verticals, and also bring enough of the geospatial knowledge to bear in order to solve problems in those industries.
That makes sense; I think if you have any kind of specific knowledge, there are a lot of companies looking for that, so leverage it!
Q: Your experience has spanned from working for travel agencies to drone companies. There are obvious connections with mapping here – ever get sucked into a cartography rabbit hole? If not, is there anything about the mapping space that is attractive to you – or is it just an afterthought?
A: Not so much cartography, but I am very interested in sensor and geospatial data! I am kind of a geo-nerd. I took geology and geography courses in college and loved them. I actually considered switching majors to geology, but then saw how almost all the jobs were in oil/gas industries, and I knew that wasn’t for me.
But I have always enjoyed maps, and have a special relationship with them. As an only child on road trips, I would look at maps all the time as we traveled. When I was at AstralAR, I was playing with drone radio sensor data, and then was exposed to multi-dimensional spatial data for the first time. When I started to work on ML projects that would predict locations of items, that’s when I started to get a deeper understanding of this 3D world that we live in!
A lot of my hands-on work has been on sensor identification and understanding, like knowing there’s a very small range of amplitudes for different firearms. Telling apart a .45 from a .32 caliber weapon is a small change in amplitude, but we can easily differentiate them from other noises, like hand claps or stuff like that. There’s a natural connection between maps and sensor work, so geography is definitely more than an afterthought for me.
Q: Now for something a little lighter – any hobbies you want to share with our audience? What do you do for fun?
A: I’m a really huge hockey fan, and one of my grad capstone projects was predicting hockey goals. I’d love to see the NHL take on embedded sensors for player body positions, and take an exploratory look on the various positions players are in when they score really cool goals. I think there’s a lot of interesting location data out there that we have increased access to as IoT has grown.
Beyond hockey, I have a few personal interests, but it’s tough to pursue a lot of hobbies during a pandemic! I know I’d be kayaking a lot more if we weren’t dealing with COVID-19 right now!
Q: Had you ever heard of GeoHipster before I contacted you? We’re … kind of a niche publication. 🙂
A: No, actually, but I checked out your website and I like your stuff! I noticed that it didn’t feel like it was all boring GIS colors, and I was really drawn to that aesthetic.
Q: As I write this, you’re currently looking for work – I hope that doesn’t last too long! But describe the lucky company that’s going to get you on their payroll. What do they do? What don’t they do? Where do they operate?
A: My ideal employer is anywhere that truly takes accountability and transparency in AI to heart. I’m not picky about specifics; there’s so many interesting kinds of data I can work with. I just don’t want to be hampered with bringing up ethical issues all the time. I hope,with everything that has happened lately, there are more organizations that are truly open to being accountable and transparent, even if it’s at the cost of losing profits.
Q: Any advice for our readers, or aspiring data scientists?
A: If you’re an aspiring data scientist, when you’re dealing with data about real people, make sure to frame your work the way you would if the data was about your friends and family. We need to sometimes step away from thinking technically and preserving neutrality, and fix problems that well-intentioned tech has created or made worse. It’s not enough to just be ethical or work on responsible AI; we want to get closer to creating an equity utopia: designing for a world we want to live in, and understanding that historical data almost never reflects that. Every time we use historical data, we’re relying on imperfect humans from the past and their decisions. And that’s difficult when we’re trying to predict the future about a changing society. The earlier you do this, the easier it will be to be transparent and think about fairness in your work.
Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How (why) did you get into GIS?
A: In the late 1980s/early 1990s when I worked at a nonprofit environmental and consumer advocacy group (the New York Public Interest Research Group; NYPIRG), my boss was starting to use GIS for our work to help residents who were living near toxic waste dumps. Eventually he left to launch his own company using GIS in the environmental consulting industry. But he sparked my interest in GIS, and by the early 1990s I was using MapInfo to support NYPIRG’s environmental research and organizing.
Soon after that I was fortunate to be accepted as a Revson Fellow at Columbia University (the program no longer exists, but it was intended for mid-career urban activists). I spent the year exploring technology for community organizing (not just GIS but also the burgeoning World Wide Web, email, relational databases, etc). I enrolled in Columbia’s urban planning graduate program and for the next two years learned much more about GIS, census data, spatial analysis, and urban planning generally. All told it was a terrific experience learning about New York City, how cities around the world had developed, and acquiring GIS and data visualization skills and knowledge in the planning discipline.
While I was at Columbia, a colleague and I at NYPIRG created the Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP). It was a nonprofit entrepreneurial venture – we provided GIS services for a modest fee to other nonprofit groups in New York and across the country. CMAP lasted about eight years and we made maps and analyzed spatial data for hundreds of groups, large and small, in all areas of nonprofit work: education, health care, transportation planning and advocacy, environmental groups, you name it. And we created several online mapping applications for “clients” (including NYPIRG), ranging from online maps that provided subway directions in New York City, identified elected officials based on a user’s street address, visualized green infrastructure, and more (several years before Google Maps, etc!).
Q: Tell us about your current job — overall duties, daily routine…
A: Since 2006 I’ve directed the CUNY Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. The Mapping Service is part of the Center for Urban Research, one of the academic/applied research centers at the graduate school.
My job involves lots of things. I work with my staff colleagues (Will Field, our senior application developer, and Valerie Bauer, a recent graduate of Lehman College’s graduate-level geography program) on our projects, collaborate with our Center for Urban Research director John Mollenkopf on research initiatives, and help other CUNY colleagues integrate GIS into their work.
I’m the point person who interacts with our partner organizations outside CUNY including nonprofit institutions such as the New York Academy of Medicine or the American Museum of Natural History, national civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, or government agencies such as the NYC Department of Homeless Services of the NYC Campaign Finance Board.
We’ve developed projects with each of these organizations, either online mapping applications, static/printed maps, or services such as geocoding. I also manage our funding for this work, whether it’s grant support from philanthropic foundations, contractual payments for our services, or both.
In addition to managing all this work, I still use GIS on almost a daily basis, usually ArcGIS but sometimes MapInfo or QGIS. I work with the Graduate Center’s IT staff and my colleague Will Field to manage our web server environment. I help maintain our data resources.
Q: Tell us about the tools you use in your job. Where do you stand on the open source vs proprietary debate?
A: We use whatever works 😊. We’re mainly an Esri shop as far as desktop GIS goes. I started using Arc products in the mid-1990s through nonprofit grant support from Esri. We’re fortunate that CUNY – the nation’s largest urban public university – has site licenses for pretty much all of Esri’s software products (CUNY comprises more than 20 individual colleges attended by more than 275,000 students, and GIS is used by students, professors, and researchers throughout the system.)
But we also continue to use MapInfo, mainly for geocoding and data management. We use QGIS and Postgres/PostGIS. Students working at our Center have used the spatial features of R to analyze data, and our colleagues at the Graduate Center make extensive use of R and QGIS as well as Esri’s software suite.
For our online mapping applications, we use a variety of platforms and technologies. Most of our applications are built around Leaflet, but some use OpenLayers. The Graduate Center server environment provides us with access to SQL Server, but we’re starting to use PostGIS for our online maps. Although we have a local instance of ArcGIS Server and we use ArcGIS Online to provide spatial data sets for our online maps, more and more we are using other options such as GeoJSON, SQL Server’s spatial features, and other online providers such as Mapbox and Carto.
Q: Do decision-makers pay attention to your work? I just learned (ht Joshua Stevens) that John Snow knew water was the source 5 whole years before he commissioned his cholera map from cartographer Charles Cheffins.The map was used to convince authorities and the public. Do today’s authorities listen? According to anecdotal evidence, policy makers in New Zealand take the advice of science researchers ~80% of the time, versus less than 20% in the US. What is your experience?
A: We tend to work on projects that decision-makers need, or that organizations want to leverage in order to make the case to decision-makers. In our work, decision-makers typically pay attention and respond to the maps we’ve produced (either for our partners, or in our own research).
For example, we provide maps for the NYC Department of Homeless Services that visualize the locations of shelters and facilities providing temporary residences, along with nearby services such as schools, other housing developments, parks, etc. In recent years these maps were used at the highest levels of policy debate to help restructure how New York City addresses the homeless crisis.
A major project we’ve been working on since 2016 has been the 2020 Census. We created an online map for census stakeholders across the country to prioritize census outreach and track the progress of census self-response (originally the self-response phase was going to be a month and a half, but due to COVID-19 it ended up being extended over 8 months). Our map was used by state agencies and local governments coordinating census planning (the State of Hawaii embedded the map at their census website), Census Bureau staff used the map, the House Oversight Committee and other congressional subcommittees referenced the map in news events and reports about the census, foundations supporting census stakeholders used our map to help guide their funding, and the many hundreds (thousands?) of groups across the country leading the effort to boost census self-response relied on our map, often on a daily basis. (The Census Bureau had several online map applications of its own for the 2020 Census, but ours combined all the data and features – and more – from the Bureau’s maps into one website, was easier to use, and was more flexible and responsive to community needs.)
Another local example is our collaboration with the New York Academy of Medicine. The Academy’s “Age Friendly NYC” program contacted us a few years ago for help in visualizing demographic patterns of the 65+ population across New York City, compared with services and other programs of interest to this population. We created the “IMAGE NYC” online map to support the Academy’s work in this area, and the map has been used extensively by philanthropic foundations, city agencies, and nonprofit groups.
Q: Authorities were “surprised” when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, even though spatial analysis models had been predicting such an event for decades. Have things changed since 2005? To judge from a recent Sharpie map action, they have not. Why are we even doing what we do if the consumers of our output — the policy makers — ignore our product? I sometimes ask myself “What’s the point?” Don’t you?
A: Maps are incredibly efficient visuals (when done right). And the analysis of spatial patterns in data is fascinating and powerful. But an effective map or analytical model doesn’t really matter if the policy makers aren’t paying attention or don’t want to pay attention. I think that’s best left for a larger discussion about politics and the potential for sustained community organizing and advocacy to make a difference (whether maps are involved or not).
Q: I got into GIS from planning, where GIS was lauded as a technology which would evolve beyond mere mapping into a decision-support system, and ultimately become a decision-making system. Are we there yet? Will we ever get there?
A: GIS-made maps, spatial analysis models, and online interactive mapping applications are pretty ubiquitous these days. It seems to me these efforts to understand real-world spatial patterns and trends have become integral to so many industries and government infrastructure. Take COVID-19 as an example. Almost from the start of the pandemic, organizations such as Johns Hopkins Institute and The New York Times used maps to visualize the spread of the virus. When New York City started publishing local data on positivity rates and other metrics, journalists and the public demanded that the data be mapped and that the city share its data publicly using small-area spatial units (the city is using ZIP Codes, but there’s an ongoing debate – at least on Twitter! – about the pros and cons of ZIP Codes versus neighborhood areas, census tracts, etc.). When the vaccine(s) are available, I’m sure GIS will play a key role in determining how it (or they) will be distributed locally and globally (Esri is already touting this.)
A: One thing I learned at NYPIRG was the importance of the media, and how to present your work to journalists so they would want to use it for their stories.
You’re generous to say that I’m a media celebrity, but I’m much more interested in making sure our maps get covered rather than me. I work hard to make sure journalists are familiar with our work and how maps can help them report on stories. I’m not as interested in getting quoted myself (I had my share of that for the 20 or so years I worked at NYPIRG – I was quoted in news articles, TV reports, and radio all the time), but these days if our maps are cited or if they help shape the coverage, I’m thrilled.
Also, my work with GIS at the CUNY Graduate Center (just like at NYPIRG) is very much a collaborative effort. I might be the one getting quoted in an article, but we couldn’t do this work without the support and involvement of lots of people and organizations: so many folks at the Graduate Center itself and CUNY overall, our partners for whom we make the maps, our funders supporting our work, etc.
One point to note about media coverage is that it is sometimes hard to get reporters interested in the maps themselves, partly (I think) because maps, online or otherwise, are so pervasive. But we’ve had some notable exceptions. In 2016 when we launched an online map for the NYC Campaign Finance Board showing the spatial patterns of campaign contributions for NYC’s 2017 municipal elections, a New York Times reporter was interested. The great thing for me was that our map itself was the story. The map made it easy for New Yorkers to see where funding was coming for local elections, and that was important enough to merit coverage in the paper of record.
An earlier example was in 2000 when the Times covered our CMAP project. It was newsworthy enough for the Times to write about how nonprofits in New York at the time were benefiting from “detailed maps using sophisticated Geographic Information Systems software” to support their advocacy work. It was wonderful to see that in the paper.
If CNN wants to improve on their election maps – or any other maps – we’d be more than happy to help them out!
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipstery hobbies we should know about?
A: My teenage kids would be the first to tell you I’m decidedly un-hipstery. But a fun thing I’ve been doing for the past few years is (re)learning guitar. I grew up in a musical family and I learned piano at a young age, and I tried my hand at being a teenage rock n roll guitar player. After high school I put all that aside, but then my son’s middle school offered a music class. He needed to pick an instrument and chose guitar, so I thought I’d start taking lessons with him. Now I’ve got the bug, and I’m learning as much as I can about fingerstyle guitar (focused on the blues in all its variations and music theory and technique more generally). It’s a blast. I really love it, and it provides a great sense of accomplishment and helps keep me sharp (fingerpicking is hard, but really rewarding!).
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Plan ahead, but try to live each day to the fullest, whatever gets thrown in your path.
Well, we did it again, folks. And by “we”, that’s our community – geohipsters, cartographers, “holiday” voters, and a team of judges came together to produce our best calendar yet for the 2021 edition. Sure, we say that every year…but this year we can also say it’s our biggest calendar, with FOURTEEN maps! The collage above gives you just a taste of what you’ll be getting if you buy one of your own.
So who are the talented cartographers that have been selected for our 2021 calendar? Let’s open the envelope…
What a fantastic mix of skills and creativity – congratulations to all of you! And just like last year, we owe a special thanks to everyone who submitted a map for our competition; each of you made judging an extremely difficult task. We’d also like to thank Bill Dollins for his usual judge wrangling, Jonah Adkins for the creative direction, and our Editorial Board for judging.
This isn’t just any calendar, folks; not only do you get 14 stunning maps, but you get a boatload of “special” holidays identified by our readers and our team. You know you’re going to want one for all the Zoom calls you’ll be in this winter and next spring! (Make sure you order by December 10 in the US if you want it by Christmas with regular shipping.)
As this article is being published, our team of judges are looking at the amazing submissions we received for our 2021 calendar. We say this every year, but we think this will be the best one yet!
So while you’re waiting to get a peek at the maps that are chosen, we thought we’d give you another way to build up the anticipation – a crowdsourcing project! So tell us: which “Special days” deserve to be marked in the 2021 GeoHipster calendar? PostGIS Day, obviously, and maybe a few other official holidays. But what else? Help us decide by voting in this fun poll. Suggestions welcome — comment or email to atanas.entchev [at] gmail [dot] com.
Born, 1983 Salt Lake City, UT. Resides in Brooklyn, NY. Jennifer Maravillas is a Brooklyn based visual artist. She creates portraits of our land in media ranging from found paper to watercolor. Her aim in this work is to capture universalities and connections across disparate communities by studying social structures from histories, landscapes, and visual design. In 2015, she completed 71 Square Miles: a map of Brooklyn compiled from trash she collected on each block to represent the cultures and voices of the community. She’s continuing her mapping work with her long-term project, 232 Square Miles in which she will walk the remainder of New York City while collecting trash as well as exploring connections throughout historic maps and data. Her background includes studies in anthropology, painting, graphic design, cartography, and mass communication. Jennifer also works as a freelance illustrator creating color-filled works about life and the world. For artwork sales information, please contact the artist through her website. Visit the artist’s website: www.jenmaravillas.com
Jennifer was interviewed by Jonah Adkins
Tell us about yourself
I’m a visual artist currently residing in Brooklyn, NY, though my passion for exploring has led me to live all over the U.S. My art practice is centered around the land and can take many forms- as large painted or collaged maps, landscape paintings, and increasingly in book format. Exploring both the world and artistic media are correlating passions that get me out of bed in the morning.
How’d you get into mapping?
I rekindled my love for maps while working on a personal project in about 2010. It was a now unfinished children’s book about a little girl that learns to fly planes inspired by a good friend. She flies above San Francisco and I decided to color each block as an homage to the psychedelic city. I was hooked. After that I painted a few similar works and realized the physicality of creating a map by hand was an exercise in meditation on that space and history. Flying in planes or staring out of car windows was my favorite thing to do as a kid and this reconnected that love for really appreciating and seeing the land. It’s now become a mode of operating in the world- in my everyday practice as well as travels. These maps have sometimes taken the format of cityscapes while under commission but in my personal work the goal is to connect the medium to the place conceptually.
Over on instagram, i was fortunate enough to see you create your 2018 election map project. How’d it come about?
I created a map called Party Line for BallotBox https://www.ballotboxart.com/ – a show curated by Skylar Smith exploring voting rights that was intended to exhibit in Metro Hall of Louisville, KY but now is on view at 21C Louisville. The open call asked artists to explore voting rights to celebrate 2020 as the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the 55th Anniversary of the Voting Rights, and the presidential election.
Since this is also a census year I decided to celebrate the right to vote by learning about one aspect of voting which has yet to evolve: the drawing of our congressional district maps. Party Line is a 99” x 55” map of the United States painted in watercolor. Each county is colored in hues of reds, blues, and yellows representing three datasets which show the two methods of gerrymandering- cracking and packing. These colors represent total votes from the 2018 congressional election in each county represented by reds or blues and the system of redistricting by state represented by yellows. Two congressional maps from 2011-2017 are then drawn over the the watercolor in lines.
Here’s my artist statement on the project:
“The United States of America is a country of borders and divisions, though the demarcations between places are often abstract and fluid. This is a concept reinforced by our centuries old tradition of redistricting in which politicians draw lines that represent us as citizen voters. These maps, often drawn behind closed doors, are a work of art to be considered. These lines tell the stories of our country through the imbalance of power and evolution of norms. They represent the redlining of votes and tools of authority wielded in the interests of politicians working toward staying in office, as opposed to representing their constituents. One person, one vote is an ideal we have never attained in the election of congress.”
It was mesmerizing to watch your technique throughout the process. Can you elaborate on your technique and methodology?
This was the first map I’ve ever painted that is quite this rich in data. This process was 100% a learning curve. Viewing the end product as more of a pastiche and compilation of maps instead of an infographic gave me a bit of confidence. My goal was to show county results contrasted with lines of the congressional districts to highlight cracking, packing, and also more generally- the entire country as this network of divisions and connections.
I compiled all of the 2018 election data onto county maps of each state for reference in determining the hue and value for each.
I scaled the US Gov county map in QGIS and then Illustrator, printed it on a large format printer, and traced it all onto a 99” x 55” roll of watercolor paper.
Working across the United States I painted each range of values at a time.
I completed the painting in a very focused three months.
Where can we see it?
The exhibit was set to open March 2020, the opening night was cancelled as the country locked down and was never opened to the public. After the shooting of Breonna Taylor and subsequent marches, Metro Hall has remained closed (it is the seat of the government in Louisville, containing the mayor’s office etc.) Just last month the museum / hotel 21C Louisville generously moved all of the work to their galleries where it will be up until January of 2021.
What other map stuff are you interested in?
It’s been fascinating to learn more about the culture around mapping- from the technical GIS to those collecting, archiving, and sharing historic maps. Ours is such an interesting time when we have better access to historic maps online and we have never understood the earth so clearly. I’m really interested in all maps as archives of vernacular and viewpoints of self and others.
My work is in flux at the moment. My main project for almost the last ten years has been to walk around NYC collecting trash to compile onto large scale block by block maps of each borough. I’ve finished and exhibited 71 Square Miles, a map of Brooklyn. The others are now indefinitely paused because of the pandemic. I will finish those but plan to leave and come back another time when I don’t have to worry about not getting sick quite so much.
I’m not entirely sure what types of mapping I’d like to do next but it will hopefully involve bridging aspects of our communal lives with the land and each other.
The intersection of art and maps can be tough for people trained in mapping, but not design. Tell us about your experience fusing them, coming from a design background?
The physicality of creating maps is what draws me to the work. Finding orientation in a place through movements of my hand gives me a feeling of empathy and wonder at the world. In a larger sense I find a connection between my art practice and maps in the design of my life. Though I was trained as a graphic designer and use those skills regularly, those principles transcend all of our lives down to what we pay attention to, how we spend our time, and how we move through the world. Mapping has given me the focus to see the world and I’ve been privileged to share that vision through colors.
Any inspirations or advice to give our technical mapping audience on interjecting art into their work?
Visualizing a process or the feeling of an end product is typically where my projects begin, though I think the main aspect of realizing any artistic practice is to be aware of what actions most inspire you. My goal is often to think of the craziest / largest / most difficult / most repetitive way to represent an idea which also utilizes a medium representing the concept. Media is where our ideas meet the viewers of our work and it’s difficult but satisfying to find a connection between the reasons for choosing one over another.
What can you count on in 2020? Well, let’s face it, not much. But, we at GeoHipster are still counting on January 1, 2021 being…a date that will be acknowledged by the world. And so we’re planning on having a calendar for you to hang on your wall! After all, we figure a bunch of you are now #WFH, so you’re going to need some wall decorations to make those Zoom meetings interesting.
Just like last year, we want to be able to announce the availability by PostGIS Day in November, so get your maps in soon. All the details are available on the 2021 calendar page. Happy Mapping!
Morgan Herlocker is an open source software developer and creator of the Turf distributed geospatial analysis framework. He has worked on mapping and statistics software across the geo industry, from consumer navigation to citizen counter-surveillance. Morgan has been a vocal advocate for user privacy in the design of location telemetry systems.
Q: I really enjoyed your talk on location privacy at SOTMUS in Minneapolis last September. In December, the NY Times did an article on this very topic. Do you think this will continue to crop up in news media in the future?
A: We’re living in a moment when authorities are asking for more location data than ever through contact tracing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, millions of people are out in the streets demanding that our officials abolish discriminatory policing practices that have explicitly targeted BIPOC communities across all US cities. The tension is palpable and people are asking “If I give officials access to my trips, will they use it against me or my neighbors in the future?” Privacy is a personal safety issue, a civil liberties issue, and a public health issue all in one, and it will be front and center as our society grapples with the underlying inequities that are increasingly front and center in this moment.
Q: Can you tell us how you managed to get into mapping and/or GIS?
A: It was a bit of an accident. I was always interested in computer graphics and data processing, but was mostly focused on audio, statistics, and game engines at first. In 2013, I started the Turf project to build a toolset that would make crunching geographic data easier and faster. At the time, I hardly knew how to make a map, knew little about data visualization, and did not even know what a GIS was. I came in with a healthy dose of naivete about how geo software could or should work. I wanted it to be more like the web – more like Unix, and was surprised to find a huge movement of people at Mapbox and elsewhere who were working towards the same thing. The Turf project hugely benefited from the contributors I met at Mapbox, and opened my eyes to the rest of the open mapping ecosystem.
Q: Do you think folks in our industry are more aware of location privacy issues than the general public? Or are we blissfully unaware, like some infosec experts who buy IOT devices?
A: Geo is a big industry. Some of us are actively complicit in the creation of these issues through working on ad tech and law enforcement tech, and it’s hard to claim that this is due to ignorance of the negative externalities. What we choose to work on is an expression of our values, and unsurprisingly, there is plenty of disagreement in this professional sphere. That said, privacy is almost trivially solvable on the technical side compared to the political front. We need to demand regulation that protects citizens and consumers from ubiquitous surveillance. These decisions should not be left to the whims of a police chief or a VP of marketing at BigCo. We are increasingly seeing state legislatures in the US addressing these issues, and I’m hopeful that we will see a federal response in the next several years.
Q: Do you think the current pandemic situation changes our tolerance for location privacy? Or will contact tracing have to be mandated in order to be effective?
A: Contact tracing is difficult to mandate and enforce in most constitutional democracies. Public agencies need to build a record at a small scale that shows they can be trusted to handle data at a large scale. Voluntary systems that extrapolate statistics across the entire populace seem more viable from both an adoption and effectiveness standpoint.
Q: Do you predict any adverse effects on the open data trend resulting from privacy issues? It’s only a matter of time before a whole “portal” gets taken offline as an overreaction, right?
A: It could happen. Some of the privacy disclosures I have made resulted in a portal being taken down for a few days, patched, then brought back online. This is the ideal situation, but I could imagine smaller teams deciding to drop sharing data entirely. While that would be unfortunate, being realistic about the resources required to maintain a system that includes personally identifying information is critical. If a dataset isn’t safe for sharing, it should not be on the internet. Often, this is mandated by existing laws and regulations, especially for government agencies in certain US states.
Q: Outside of location privacy, what else excited you about our industry? Any interesting projects you want to share?
A: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is my “must watch” for geo tech this year. Is it a map? Is it a GIS? I’m not sure, but it clearly sets a new bar for how I think about cartography and providing spatial context to users.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I’m really into gardening for food and flowers using the concepts of permaculture and closed loop systems. I’ve also been using the extra alone time during the pandemic to brush up on my jazz guitar chops. I try to follow my interests and don’t draw hard lines between professional and personal hobbies.
Q: What do you think has defined “the geohipster” over the last decade? Will this change in the 2020s?
A: A fundamental, at times borderline irrational, belief that empowered communities can solve challenging problems through collaboration without a central extractive authority. The groups in the geo software industry with the most lasting success have made this real by fostering community, designing for sustainability, and investing in getting the usability details right. That won’t change anytime soon.
Q: Any parting words of wisdom for our readers? A:“Geo” is often used as a catchall industry for people making maps for a particular narrow set of purposes. This leads to less diverse teams and less useful software. Look for ideas and talented people in adjacent industries that do similar work with a different label. If we think about geo as a skill set that includes anyone pushing the limits of computational geometry, there are far more avenues for development. If we think about geography as a skill set for understanding the arrangement of human infrastructure, we can learn from people with non-traditional backgrounds like real estate or delivery logistics. There is so much untapped potential in the field, but we need to do the work to recruit and welcome these contributors.
A: My name is Vicky Johnson, I’m a cartographer in Washington DC. I work on a data analysis team in international development (not trying to be cagey about where I work! I just prefer to keep my professional and personal work separate. It’s probably overkill but I feel better about being sort of a goofball on twitter). I’ve been a geospatial professional for about 13 years, my career path has taken me everywhere from QA on the Census’ road network data to municipal government in New Zealand. Over this time I’ve discovered that I really like local mapping best. There’s nothing quite as rewarding as really getting to familiar with a place and translating that knowledge into geospatial data. In my free time I play drums and make a lot of ice cream.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: This map was created for a role playing game designed by a former coworker. He provided me with a few pages of background and I did the rest – essentially, it’s an alternate, speculative social and geologic history of the American Gulf Coast set in the 1920s. I had great fun both creating situationally cohesive terrain and replicating map styles of the time. One thing I learned while making it is how hard it is to create believable fake terrain! I spent ages messing around in various software programs before deciding to grab some SRTM data and massage it into the existing landscape. Much easier and more realistic-looking than the disasters I created in Blender.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: I used QGIS to get the STRM sized and oriented, ArcMap for the non-faked GIS tasks, Photoshop to blend the new terrain with the real stuff, and Illustrator for the aesthetics, plus a lot of research into how maps were designed and produced in the 1920s. There were two resources I relied on fairly heavily, a USGS Standards Manual available at Project Gutenberg and a Latvian design manual from 1928 posted at makingmaps.net. These sorts of guides are wonderful as reference and creative material, they’re fascinatingly rich documentation of cartographic history and it’s always enjoyable to consider how all of these careful, nuanced decisions were arrived upon by map-makers almost a century ago!
A: For most of my life I have been fascinated with maps, both studying them and making them myself. As a child I would fill folders with detailed maps of an imaginary country and would spend too many hours playing games like SimCity and Civilization on the computer (ok, I do that as an adult sometimes too!). These interests would eventually lead me to studying geography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA and begin a career doing GIS work. Recently I’ve become interested in programming and am now enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s online GIS and web map programming masters program. I’m currently a GIS Analyst at the Virginia Department of Transportation in Richmond.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: I became interested in using 3D rendering software in cartography when I stumbled on some of the beautiful maps created by Owen Powell (@owenjpowell) last Spring. While doing research to learn how to make 3D maps of my own, I discovered the work of Daniel Huffman (@pinakographos) and Scott Reinhard (@scottreinhard), both of which were also influential. I experimented with terrain maps for a couple months before deciding to try creating an urban map using lidar data. I chose the US Capitol because it’s such a well known landmark.
My decision to design this map in black and white was inspired by Daniel Huffman’s NACIS talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptKDS1Z8Oro) about the challenges and advantages of mapping in monochrome. I initially planned on designing the map in color, but then I realized that removing color created a more formal tone that is fitting for a map of the buildings where such important decisions are made.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map
A: Data Used:
– The Lidar data was downloaded from the USGS National Map.
– I used land cover data from the Chesapeake Conservancy.