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Patrick McGranaghan: “I like maps that connect disparate datasets in novel ways”


Patrick McGranaghan is a land surveyor in Denver, Colorado. He started the MapPorn subreddit in May 2011 while living in Taipei, Taiwan. In his free time Patrick is a geographic pilgrim, visiting places like the Mason-Dixon line and all seven corners of Colorado. Patrick also runs the Twitter account @mapporntweet.

Patrick was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: How did your career as a land surveyor come about?

A: I found a job working as a rodman for a surveying crew after doing a stint teaching English to school children in Taiwan. Living in Taiwan was one of the best experiences in my life, but after four years it was time to come back. When I got back I had few connections or prospects, but knew I wanted to do something with maps, so I applied for a surveying job that I found on Craigslist. After several years of learning on the job I was able to move into my dream job of drawing survey maps for a living.

Q: The 10th anniversary of /r/MapPorn is coming up. Tell me what inspired you to start MapPorn, and what goes on behind the scenes.

A: I joined the Reddit community early on because I liked the interface and the up-vote and down-vote style of finding content. When I started /r/MapPorn the ‘subreddit’ communities were still a new idea and there wasn’t one for high-quality maps. I can remember in the years of the 2000s trying to search for good maps and the content was much harder to find. There were a few sites like the David Rumsey Map Collection and Frank Jacobs had a great blog called Strange Maps but other than that there were few sites that collected the kind of maps I was interested in. 

In the years since Reddit and the user-base has transformed. Reddit was originally for desktop users who could look at content on a big screen with a reliable internet connection. Now, for better or worse, the majority of users are on mobile. I think this biases the content in favor of bite-sized consumable maps that look good on a phone or tablet device. Purists sometimes find these ‘meme’ style maps to be irritating, but the demographic trends are inexorable.

Q: Are you a map hoarder? 

A: Yes, map hoarding is definitely a problem for us in the hobby. Any time I’m traveling I can’t resist picking up free brochures or other ephemera with a map. I have boxes in my closet full of such souvenirs and memorabilia. I’m used to moving around and traveling so I probably have a smaller collection than a lot of hobbyists to keep things light. Almost the entirety of my bedroom walls are covered in maps and illustrations. I recently visited a great little map store here in Denver called The Old Map Gallery, and I had to pinch myself and think about my crowded walls to stop myself from buying more maps. Map collecting is sometimes surprisingly affordable and antique maps can be had for less than a night at a nice restaurant. 

Q: What kind of maps would you like to see more of? 

A: I think that there is still a lot of potential in maps with modern data visualization techniques. We have an ocean of data in this age and I think a lot of it is lost in databases, csvs, xml and other data structures. I like maps that connect disparate datasets in novel ways and make new discoveries. In the book “Info We Trust” RJ Andrews has a chapter visualizing the orientation of cathedrals and showing how they are oriented towards the rising sun. This is the kind of insight that new maps can show. The data is already out there, it just takes a clever person to connect the dots.

Q: You’re one of the biggest geo nerds I know. What are some of your geo-related hobbies?

A: Thanks, I’m flattered. In the words of Thomas Pynchon from Mason & Dixon, I would consider myself to be a “Geometrickal Pilgrim”. In 2020 I finished my goal of visiting all seven corners of Colorado. Yes, seven corners if you include the points where other states have their corners on the Colorado line. I also recently made a trip to the Philadelphia area to visit the Delaware “Wedge” and other sites associated with Mason and Dixon. A few years ago I hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. 

I also like to make maps using QGIS and Illustrator. Recently I’ve been exploring different projections. I’ve been especially interested in the Hotine Oblique and the Gnomonic projections and in how they challenge conventional ideas of the flat map. 

Q: When we met at NACIS in Tacoma, you told me you’ve spent a lot of time traveling. How many countries have you been to, and what are some of your future destinations? 

A: Yes, that was a great NACIS convention! Unfortunately we’ve all had to put our travel plans on hold in the last year. I had planned on doing a Round the World trip in 2020 but obviously that fell through. Some of the places I hoped to visit on that trip include a huge map of Korea in Daejeon, a Soviet map store in Latvia, a giant map on a cooling tower of a power plant near Meppen, Germany, the home of Dutch astronomer Willebrord Snell in Leiden, and Roy’s baseline near Heathrow in England. 

As far as countries I’ve been to, I don’t really keep count, but it’s around 30. Here’s to hoping things get back to normal soon. We’ve only got a limited time on this planet and we’re losing years of our lives that we won’t get back. 

Q: Any final words to our GeoHipster readers? 

A: I just want to say I love my GeoHipster calendar, shoutout to Barry Rowlingson for his April Fools’ San Serriffe map.

Maps and Mappers of the 2021 calendar: Barry Rowlingson, April

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a Senior Research Fellow in the CHICAS group of Lancaster University’s Medical School. We’re a bunch of statisticians and data scientists who mostly work on spatial aspects of epidemics, so we are quite busy now. I’ve been doing spatial statistics and GIS for over thirty years. Outside of work I like to bike, hike, play music (bass, guitar, drums, keys), and drive my rattly old Land Rover around.

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: As a bit of a puzzler and prankster I’ve always been fascinated by the island of San Serriffe – perhaps the greatest April Fool’s prank ever. The effort put into the original newspaper supplement amazes me – not just the maps but the articles, stories and adverts. There were a few digital versions of the map on the internet – some very different from the original publications – but I wanted to create something close to the original, in a vector format, and to release the data so we had an open-source digital San Serriffe. Everything on my map is derived from the original map published in the April 1977 Guardian newspaper. I’ve never really done polished cartography like this before, so I learnt a lot about QGIS, especially its fine control of labels. I think I lost more than a few hairs adjusting things to stop labels suddenly disappearing when they got just a tiny bit too close to another feature!

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: First I took a few images from the original article and approximately geolocated the archipelago, and then digitised the borders, railways, roads etc all using QGIS. My original plan was to do a map in a modern OpenStreetMap style, but the hand-crafted style of the original drew me back, and I got to thinking about how that could be replicated in a modern GIS. Back in 1977 the maps look like they were made with old-school Letraset transfers, with icons hand-drawn and lettering cut up and pasted to fit curves – all things we take for granted in a modern GIS. Replicating that hand-made feel is much like trying to make synthesizer music sound human. Perfect beats sound cold and robotic, we need humans in the musical loop to add emotion and “feel”, and adding this kind of thing to a map using a GIS was an interesting challenge.

I’ve since created some elevation data for San Serriffe. Although there’s few explicit elevation points on the original map (two mountain elevations and a coastline at sea level) I used other cues to create an elevation surface. Rivers have to run downhill. Train lines can’t cover steep gradients. The Woj of Tipe is a flat swamp. Although this data didn’t make it into the calendar map it will find its way onto the Digital San Serriffe site at some point!

Trisalyn Nelson: “The biggest challenge is working to ensure the data are representative”

Trisalyn Nelson joined the Department of Geography at UCSB as Jack and Laura Dangermond Endowed Chair of Geography in 2020. From 2016-2020 she was Director of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Prior, she was the Lansdowne Research Professor and Director of the Spatial Pattern Analysis and Research Lab at the University of Victoria, Canada. Trisalyn is mom to Beatrice and Finn and married to Ian Walker. She loves bicycling and baking, especially with her family.

Trisalyn was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A:  As a student I was really interested in forest conservation. I had a summer internship at the Pacific Forestry Center and one of the mentors I met there showed me how being technically proficient in GIS and spatial data analysis would allow me to support better forestry decisions. As a result, I had to go and take a lot of additional classes, including pre-requisite courses, to get the data and computing skills needed to pursue GIS. But, I am so glad I did.

Q: How did you decide to pursue a career in academia?

A: I am an accidental geographer and an accidental academic. As the first in my family to attend university, I did not understand what a PhD was. I remember being super confused about the difference between a TA and a professor. I had many great professors and mentors that helped me succeed in university. 

It was really a combination of a field course in the Rocky Mountains and great internships that lead me to learn how to do research. As someone that had struggled early on in university, it was amazing when I discovered GIS was something I was good at. 

Q: Tell us about your typical work day (or week) — what you do, what GIS and other tools you use.

A: Hmm… well… I use lots of different tools. But, my favorite part of my job is scheming up new ways to answer questions using spatial data. I love collaborating and if someone comes by with spatial data I can’t help but get excited about finding ways to help with analysis. I have worked with many interdisciplinary teams and there is something so satisfying about seeing other people light up when they realize how GIS and geography can create a deeper understanding of data and issues. 

Q: As an avid cyclist and a former year-round bike commuter I can relate to your bike safety concerns, and I admire your BikeMaps initiative. Tell us more about it.

A: I love bicycling and I love maps. BikeMaps.org is the bringing together of both the things.  When I first had the idea, in response to my own near miss, I thought it would just be a fun summer project. But, it turns out that only about 20% of bicycling crashes are officially reported and there is a need to fill data gaps on bicycling safety. BikeMaps.org is a crowdsource tool for collecting data on bicycling crashes, near misses, and falls. We ask questions about what happened and the impact of the incident. We have published several papers using the data and are improving bicycle safety by providing hot spot maps to cities and modelling predictors of bicycling injury. We are so proud that cities are making investments to improve bicycling based on BikeMaps.org data.

We are launching a new project called WalkRollMap.org which uses a similar approach as BikeMaps.org for mapping micro barriers to walking and rolling with wheelchairs and other mobility assisting devices. The goal of this project is to reach people that are underseved by transportation systems and help them map where investment would enable their mobility. Stay tuned!  

Q: What was/is the biggest challenge in developing and running BikeMaps? The technology? The data? The “crowd”?

A: Luckily we have always had an amazing technology development team that has protected me from some of the technological challenges. Using a crowdsourced tool requires ongoing promotion to people that can provide data, and constantly reminding people we are here is a challenge. But, the biggest challenge is working to ensure the data are representative. People providing data to BikeMaps.org are people that have access to both bicycling and technology. We need to ensure that people that do not have access are not left behind. Working to engage older adults, youth, women, low income and homeless people, and people of color is really critical and something we are focusing on improving in the next wave of data collection.

Q: You are the Jack and Laura Dangermond Chair of Geography at UCSB. You are also “The Dangerman Chair”. Tell us about the former. Who awarded you the latter?

A: The Jack and Laura Dangermond Chair in Geography is a faculty position at UCSB. The chair is endowed by the generous Dangermonds. Originally, it was created for Michael Goodchild, one of the key leaders in the field of GIS. As such, I see the position as a really important mixture of teaching, research, and disciplinary leadership. I am hoping that in this position I can be a champion for inclusive and impactful geographical research. With so many pressing issues, from climate change to social inequity, we need to do everything we can to accelerate solutions.

I received the Dangerman Chair award from my 9 year old daughter Beatrice Nelson-Walker. She heard me talking about the Dangermond chair and how excited I was to be moving to UCSB to be the Dangermond chair of geography. So she drew me a picture for my office. I guess she heard Dangerman.

Q: I have never been to Santa Barbara, but I’d love to visit some day. Looks wonderful. Tell us about life in Santa Barbara.

A: Santa Barbara is really beautiful. It is near the ocean with a moderate climate. Lots of bicycling and hiking.  And, the food is delicious. 

Q: Do you still bike to work?

A: Absolutely! I love biking, with bike commuting being my favorite.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I love to bake. I make fancy cakes for my kids’ birthdays, usually in the shape of animals. And, I have a line of cookies.

Q: Do you have any hipstery traits? Other than cycling, of course (a fixie maybe?)

A: I am obsessed and snobby about coffee. Though, I think hipsters may be trying to ruin coffee with sour roasts!  

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Geographers should be at the forefront of creating solutions to the world’s most pressing issues. From climate change to social justice the tools that geographers have are critical for making the world more sustainable and more inclusive.

Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Valters Zeizis, cover

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I work as an Oceanologist for the Latvian met-office and work with meteorological and marine data. I have experience working with various spatial data, but I guess my favorite source is Satellite data. I tend to experiment with various sensors and processing methods and often share my results on social media. I think in a nutshell it’s also how I became engaged with the makers of GeoHipster calendar.

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 image that is on the cover of this year’s calendar shows suspended sediment in the Gulf of Riga. The image shows suspended sediment that is poured into the sea during springtime river runoff. Relatively stable marine currents form beautiful patterns, while the coloring is related to optical properties of water – the density and size of the suspended matter. The inspiration behind the image is purely aesthetic, but in a sense it’s also analytical. It is also a rare occasion of a cloudless Satellite overpass during a very interesting and large scale natural event.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The image is made using Sentinel 2 data that has been processed by a script which enhances NDWI (normalized difference water index). The image came about while I was playing with the script (https://custom-scripts.sentinel-hub.com/custom-scripts/sentinel-2/selective_enhancement_based_on_indices/) and looking at the phenomena in a familiar area. After I was satisfied with the capture I also did some post-processing in GIMP.

Rebekah Jones to GeoHipster: “We work at the cross-section of Earth and people”

Rebekah Jones
Rebekah Jones

Rebekah Jones’ unlikely notoriety as a coronavirus whistleblower stemmed from her ground-breaking work as the GIS Manager at the Florida Department of Health, where she led data and surveillance during the global pandemic. Her work became the standard for states nation-wide. In May 2020, when asked to manipulate data in support of a premature plan to reopen the state, Jones refused, was fired, defamed, and became an object of the press for months after she filed her whistleblower complaint against the state.

Jones earned her bachelor’s from Syracuse University in 2011 with dual majors in geography and journalism, then went on to study hurricanes and climate change at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Later, Jones headed to Florida State University to continue her research in hurricanes and climate change. 

After leaving DOH, Jones built her own system to monitor the pandemic, worked on global programs to track cases in east Africa, and launched a nationwide initiative to track cases in schools. In September 2020, Jones was named one of Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 and one of Medium’s 50 experts to trust during a pandemic.

Rebekah was interviewed by Christina Boggs-Chavira, Mike Dolbow, and Atanas Entchev.

Q: What sparked your love for geography? How did you get into GIS?

A: Having lived through blizzards, tornadoes and hurricanes as a kid, I always found weather and hazards interesting. I’d say I fell in love with geography as a discipline at Syracuse, when I took my first global climate change course with Dr. Jane Reed. She helped me make sense of all of the things that had been happening around me my entire life. It felt like finding religion in a way — I finally understood my lived experiences in a scientific way.

Q: You built Florida state’s COVID Dashboard, leading a 20-person team. Then you were fired. You launched your own COVID Dashboard 2.0 (later renamed to Covid Monitor) in one day, which you financed yourself. This is an amazing feat. How did you manage? Did you have help?

A: I don’t know where the 20-person team came from but I was actually the only one who ever touched the dashboard, the data feeds, or any of the data that fed into it. It was me alone for months because I was the only one there who could do it. My backup was stuck in India and then was quarantined for a few weeks, so I didn’t even get to have someone else do the updates until late April. It was extremely stressful and overwhelming. I was exhausted, not unlike a lot of people who had been working all day, every day since the pandemic started. When I refused to use the system to mislead and lie to people, they took the dashboard (and wrecked it) then fired me. After all I had put into the project, they didn’t care. I built my next dashboard, Florida COVID Action, in June, to provide a location that brought in ALL of Florida’s authoritative data into one location, not just what the Department of Health restricted me to while I worked there. I added Department of Corrections data, emergency management data, hospitalization data, long-term care facility data, testing site data — if it was published in an official capacity by the state, I added it. Two months or so later, I co-founded The Covid Monitor with partners from FinMango and Google. That project arose out of a need to provide K-12 case data — a void no one else was filling. We saw the gap and the need, so we tackled it. It’s been an amazing success since then and I couldn’t be more thankful to my partners. 

Rebekah at the Florida DOH
Rebekah at the Florida DOH

Q: Incorporating school district data into the COVID Monitor is one major difference from the official Florida dashboard 1.0. Your COVID Monitor is presently the only national reporting system for school districts. Why is school district data tracing important? Was it difficult to obtain the data?

A:  At first, no one wanted to report school data. We depended on press releases and news articles, reporting from staff inside schools, and investigative reporting by our team. Mississippi stepped forward as the first state to report consistent data about cases in K-12 schools, and their progressive thinking allowed us to pressure other states to do the same. Now, most states report some kind of data about schools, and many districts in states that aren’t currently reporting will release their own district-wide data. Schools are a breeding ground for the virus — as we’ve seen across the United States and especially in the UK, where schools remained open to face-to-face instruction leading to the emergence of the B117 strain. 

Q: When setting up applications for hurricane tracking or for COVID, I probably would be concerned about getting the data right and then secondly but still incredibly important — your application is about to be slammed. What do you do to prepare for all that traffic that is about to click on your map?

A: I was manager of GIS for the entire Florida Department of Health, so thankfully I had access and control over all our dedicated servers, backups, etc. I had to check in with Esri since it’s an online platform to ensure they were ready for the traffic, as well. Crafting the settings for optimization and working on code helped a lot.

Q: Our readers are all about open data and the transparency that it engenders. Some might say that proprietary software can taint analysis results because the code is in a “black box”, whereas free and open source software can lower the barriers to scientific replication. Where do you stand on the debate over tools, if anywhere? Is transparent data more important than the tools used to display it?

A: Reproducibility is a must. I actually published extremely detailed data definitions and processes while I worked at DOH. The software used here was just a tool to display data and provide APIs. The data itself is where the transparency must be absolute. How is it gathered? What are the potential biases in collection and production? What does this data say, and what does it not say? What is not known? Where are the gaps? Transparency is about acknowledging your data’s flaws as well as its strengths. I stand firmly with the “release the code” group. 

Q: Where do you see this project going? You will get another job sooner rather than later. Do you foresee the COVID Monitor folding into your new job, or will you continue to maintain it outside of the job, or something else?

A: We were all hoping that a new administration would take over The Covid Monitor and run this project from the NIH, CDC or Dept. of Education (or some combination thereof). We had hope when Biden announced a national dashboard, but we’ve yet to see schools even mentioned in that plan. It’s really disappointing, but if this administration fails the public again by not providing this data, we’ll continue to do it ourselves until it is no longer needed. 

Q: Recently your mobile phone and PC were seized on a search warrant by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. What was that about? Do you have your devices back?

A:  I hope to have my devices back soon. The raid on my home was nothing more than an attempt by DeSantis to find out who’s been talking to me and to flush out disloyalty within his ranks.

Q: I can speak for myself and say with all honesty, hearing about what has happened to you and what is continuing to unfold and my heart goes out to you. I hope I would have the strength like you did. How did you do it, what gave you the strength?

A:  I don’t know. I have always fought for doing what I thought was right, so it’s really second nature for me to see something wrong and say “no, I will not accept this.” We moved because guns were pointed at my kids in the raid ordered by the Governor, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reporting the information people depend on. I don’t think anyone knows what they’ll do in those moments. We all hope we’d do the right thing — the hard thing — even when guns are pointed at us or our family, but until we’re there, no one really knows. 

Q: You’re a wife and a mother. How does your family handle all this — the recent move to DC and the rest of the craziness?

A: When you’re in your home and armed men storm your house, there’s a loss of security in your mind. Even here in DC, I jump when the doorbell rings. I don’t know if that will ever go away. You feel like there’s no safe place for you anymore. My son is struggling, but so am I, and my husband, in our own, different ways. Moving is always crazy — and feels impossible with a toddler, ha. Not fun, but necessary.

Q: As someone with degrees from Syracuse and LSU, plus significant time living in Florida and now DC, you’ve seen a lot of the country. Forgetting about COVID for a minute, if you could pick a place to live, where would that be and why?

A: Hawaii. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Louisiana, Florida, now DC… I know I love the beach, warmth, sun. I’m committed to mapping indigenous landscapes and protecting cultural sitescapes, and Hawaii would be an amazing opportunity to do so. My roommate at Syracuse is Hawaiian and would tell me about her home. If we’re limiting options to the United States and cost wasn’t an issue, Hawaii, hands down. 

Rebekah with her parents
Rebekah with her parents

Q: Do you consider yourself a GIS person, or a data scientist, or a whistleblower? Or maybe all three?

A:  I’m not a data scientist. I keep emphasizing to folks that I am a geographer — and I was recognized as a geographer in the news for months before the raid. Now I’m back to data scientist, and it’s highly inappropriate. All scientists work with data, that doesn’t make them data scientists. I consider myself a GIS expert, a whistleblower, a geographer. 

Q: You are a GIS celebrity, like it or not. You are the Forbes nerd of the year. How does it feel to be an industry celebrity?

A:  Hahaha. I wish it would help me find a job! I had no idea the Forbes award was in the works, and they didn’t even contact me to tell me I had received it! I found out on Twitter several days after the announcement!

Q: Have you considered running for office?

A: Yes. Our country desperately needs scientists and geographers in office who have a steadfast commitment to doing what is right. 

Q: Picture your average “geohipster”, if such a thing exists. Is that person doing what you would recommend to stay safe during a pandemic? If not, what should they be doing – or stop doing?

A: I would hope anyone with a geographically-focused education would know to do everything in their power to limit their role in spreading this virus. 

Q: If you could make COVID-19 disappear with a snap of your fingers, what would you be doing for fun in your spare time?

A: Hiking, visiting with my sisters and parents, eating out, ha.

Q: What advice do you have for little aspiring geographers and for those of us who are a bit less little?

A: We work at the cross-section of Earth and people. The tension between those two entities can be jarring, and often tests our ideals of what is right and wrong. I asked this question to DOH “leadership” the day they asked me to use my work to lie to people about the safety of reopening, and I think it’s something everyone should ask themselves whenever they’re faced with such a decision. The Hippocratic oath of geography to do no harm:

“If we do this, will more people get sick and die than if we didn’t do it?”

And if that answer is yes, we shouldn’t do it. It’s that simple. It has to be that simple. 

Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Zoey Armstrong, back cover

Q: Tell us about yourself.

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 to GeoHipster: “Frame your work as if the data was about your friends and family.”

Ayodele Odubela
Ayodele Odubela

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 Romalewski to GeoHipster: “If our maps help shape the coverage, I’m thrilled”

Steven Romalewski
Steven Romalewski | Credit: CUNY Graduate Center

Steven Romalewski directs the Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of NY (CUNY). The Mapping Service engages with foundations, agencies, businesses, nonprofits, and CUNY researchers to use spatial analysis techniques in applied research projects. They specialize in online applications providing intuitive access to powerful data sets, displayed visually through interactive maps and other formats.

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.)

Q: You are a media celebrity in the area of election mapping, census mapping, COVID mapping, voter registration. From 1984 when you appeared on the front page of the New York Times, through your NYT analysis of the AOC surprise upset victory in the 2018 primary, to November 2020 where you offer voter turnout analysis for the Gotham Gazette and your FAQNYC podcast, you are the go-to person for in-depth discussion of all things public policy/geospatial. Has CNN called yet? John King’s magic map wall is getting long in the tooth… Would you say yes if they called?

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.

Once again, we celebrate #PostGIS Day with the newest GeoHipster Calendar

Collage of the maps in the 2021 GeoHipster Calendar
Collage of the FOURTEEN maps included in our 2021 calendar

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.)

Oh, and happy #PostGIS Day!

Poll: “Special Days” in 2021 GeoHipster calendar

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.