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Raluca Nicola: “The community profits from everyone’s knowledge.”

Raluca Nicola

Raluca Nicola works at Esri as a Product Engineer for ArcGIS API for JavaScript. She enjoys creating maps and data visualizations using the latest web technologies. Most of these maps are in 3D and all of them live on the web. 

Raluca was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: Can you tell me about your journey as a web cartographer? 

A: My journey started with me being clueless about what I want to study and generally what I want to do in life. I started studying math in college because that’s what I liked most during high-school. In my second year I realized it was too abstract for me, so I quit math and started studying geography. I found it interesting to learn how the world around us works. I soon discovered GIS and enjoyed analyzing and visualizing data to explain real world phenomena. Then I got more and more drawn towards the visualization part, and in my Master’s studies I focused on cartography. During those studies, I had a web cartography course and I was hooked. I like coding and the web is a great environment: I can create beautiful, interactive visualizations and it’s so easy to share them with others. 

Q: What do you like most about being a cartographer?

A: I love the data exploration part. It feels a bit like detective work to process and visualize a dataset in various ways and extract important information from it. And then the part that I enjoy the most is figuring out how to convey that information to others in a good way. In recent years I discovered that the magic in visualization comes when you combine concepts and ideas from different fields in novel ways…and I love to apply that to cartography. 3D cartography for example, makes use of 2D cartography and classical data visualization concepts, but it’s also heavily influenced by architecture, games and art. And like everything else nowadays, it’s also heavily influenced by technology. 

Q: Where do you get your inspiration to make maps? 

A: I try to take it from everywhere: maps and visualizations I stumble upon (mostly online), movies, commercials, articles I read, ideas I discuss with colleagues and friends. I think inspiration can come from the most unexpected places! 🙂 

Q: How’s your experience working with 2D and 3D maps? Do you have a preference for one over another?

A: My motto is: choose the technique that helps you send your message across in the best way. From experience, I would say that there are fields where one could be better than the other. For example, 3D is great when you visualize data related to cities or urban planning, and 2D can be better for complex multivariate data visualizations. But even in those cases, I’d first analyze the goal of the project and the audience, and then I’d choose the mapping technique. 

Q: How do you keep up with the latest trends in mapping? 

A: I think social media like Twitter or Linkedin are great platforms to see what people who are passionate about GIS and cartography are up to. Whenever I can, I also try to attend conferences that are specific to cartography like NACIS, Eurocarto or the International Cartographic Conference. 

Q: You live in a country with the most beautiful landscape. What outdoor activities do you like to do in Switzerland? 

A: Switzerland is amazing if you like mountains! I try to go hiking every weekend, and I often bike around Zurich, exploring the surroundings. I also enjoy skiing in winter, even though I’m not the greatest skier. 

Q: What was it like to work in the Swiss Alps and make maps for the Swiss National Park?

A: Such a great experience! It was a one year internship after university and I learned a lot there. I was really lucky to have a great supervisor who gave me some awesome and challenging tasks to work on. The village where I lived was very small; about 1000 inhabitants. And that was very strange for me, because I had only lived in big cities until then. I lived in a shared flat with other interns at the park. We had a really nice time, we cooked together, went hiking a lot, and watched movies. I also participated in my first karaoke there…turns out I can’t really sing, hehe!

Q: Aside from making maps, do you have any nerdy hobbies that you want to tell us about?

A: Not really a hobby, but for sure nerdy: I have an obsession with computer keyboards. At some point I built my own keyboard, but it was probably the worst one in my collection and the one I paid the most for…my fingers didn’t really get along with the layout of the keys. 

Q: One of your maps was featured on our Geohipster calendar in 2020, so you’re ahead of the GeoHipster game. What advice do you give to our users?

A: One piece of advice I try to offer is to share with others what you do and learn 🙂 The community can profit so much from everyone’s knowledge. Even if you think that it’s something simple, I’m sure someone out there could use it at some point, so share it!

Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Owen Powell, August

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I am a GIS Consultant working for Arup in the UK, with a specialism in data engineering and 3D visualisation. I think I have an unusual background for someone in GIS, having studied Fine Art, and later 3D Modelling & Animation. I have a passion for art and design, and studied painting, photography, and architecture which I still love. 

I got into GIS by accident but found it fascinating, especially being able to join data together with spatial relationships. I learned Maya & Blender (thanks to Nick George if you’re out there!) before ever knowing GIS was a thing. 

I am one of the people responsible for the popularity of Blender in cartography in recent years, having developed and shared new workflows and techniques. 

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 am slightly obsessed with Japan, and Japanese culture – it is so unique. I made this map of Hachijō-jima Island for no real reason other than to create something new and different, plus I love making maps of islands. In my work I try to do something different each time, and consider it a failure if I just repeat a style I’ve done before, or in the style of someone else. 

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

A: I had some help from @kenjirototsuji with finding the data, and navigating the complexities of Japanese GML schemas from the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.

The basis of the map was made with FME, in creating a surface as well as textures such as the coastal vignette. I love that FME gives you complete control and works with practically any format of data. FME is vital in my work, effectively extending the possibilities in Blender beyond the standard VFX and games industry data formats. 

The map is an orthographic render of a 3D model, made from triangulating contours and extruding 2d features (GML > FBX using FME). This is something I find myself doing more and more, because the resolution of elevation data rarely fits well with the available topographic data. If you create your own DEM raster or surface then there are opportunities to fill voids or smooth areas to match your intended map scale. 

With this map I used Blender’s node-based shader editor where you can mix map layers as textures to affect the way it reacts to light, for example with the roads, water, and the coastal vignette.

Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Ron Halliday, July

Q: TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF.

A: I am a professional cartographer, a graduate of the Cartography: Digital Mapping program at the College of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada. At the time it was one of the only mapping courses in Canada, and – fortunately for me – I grew up a mere 60 kilometres (~40 miles) from the campus. As a child I loved perusing and drawing maps, but it was only at a career fair during my final year of high school when I discovered that I could make them for a living!

At the start of my career I worked in Calgary as an independent consultant, creating maps for biologists, ecologists, geologists and the like. Since moving to South America in 2004, my work has focused on aerial surveying, environmental protection, transportation, tourism and board games (yes, 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: In 2020, these population flag maps were all the rage. I didn’t come across any, however, that included vexillological information! Nor did I see any that could match the level of detail possible with population data from Statistics Canada. So I downloaded their 489,676 dissemination block polygons and went to work carving up Canada into the same proportions as the flag.

The two outer red bands were fairly straightforward, but it was difficult to find a spot in the rest of Canada with nearly 5 million residents where the maple leaf would fit, and with small dissemination blocks so that its shape would be recognizable. But through trial and error I eventually found one! Then it was just a matter of (de)selecting a few polygons here and there in order to get the population/proportion accurate to four decimal places.

Q: TELL US ABOUT THE TOOLS, DATA, ETC., YOU USED TO MAKE THE MAP.

A: This map was made using QGIS 3.14.15. Population data came from the 2016 Statistics Canada Census Program, and the blurb about the flag was taken from the 1964 royal proclamation by Elizabeth II.

Anton Thomas: “Creative inspiration is not field-specific, everything in life flows together to inspire what you do”

Anton Thomas is an artist-cartographer from New Zealand, based in Australia. He creates hand-drawn illustrated maps with colour pencil and pen. His focus is primarily on large works which showcase the world in heavy detail and vivid colour. His works include North America: Portrait of a Continent, a map that took almost five years to complete.

Anton was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: How did your journey as a cartographer begin? 

A: I was obsessed with maps as a young child. Growing up in small-town New Zealand, my surroundings were awe-inspiring. The geography of the South Island is magnificent, and maps helped me understand it. Exploring them evoked mystery and adventure. While I did like fantasy fiction, I found the real world to be far more captivating. And New Zealand has the geography for it: one looks across the ocean to snow-capped volcanoes, while the Pacific crashes into primeval coastline. It was a vivid place to grow up.

NZ is also very isolated, so perusing atlases and globes was a way to explore distant lands. I would stay up at night drawing maps, committing coastlines to memory. I also loved drawing animals, landscapes, cities, dinosaurs – whatever interested me – and I combined these with maps from the start.

This passion was somewhat neglected through my teens, but came roaring back when I began travelling in 2011. After a childhood in NZ, I was amazed at the vastness of continental geography. I spent two years criss-crossing North America, and my love of maps was reignited. I began to draw them more than ever, culminating in my Portrait of a Continent project (discussed in Question 3).

Q: You’re working on a map called Wild World. Can you tell me more about it?

A: I started Wild World last year, in the middle of a long lockdown in Melbourne. After years drawing a map of North America, I was desperate for something different. I wished to focus only on the natural world, instead of the countless skylines and cultural features of my previous works.

So, it is a world map about nature. The map is in the lovely Natural Earth projection, centred on 11°E rather than Greenwich (I prefer the edges to cut through the Bering Strait, unlike 0°). After sizing it, I printed off the base map and stapled it to the back of my art paper. Then using a lightbox, I traced all coastlines, rivers, and relief and began drawing.

I’ve dreamed of this map since childhood. At age 15 I drew a world map in which the coastlines are shaped by animals of each region. More recently, after seeing Tom Patterson’s stunning physical world maps, I envisioned an animal map showcasing physical geography in detail. Painstaking attention is given to geography and labelling, as I hope it can be a great reference map for world geography. Meanwhile, animals are amazing at evoking place (think tiger in India, kangaroo in Australia), and evoking place is a key goal of my work. There have been many animal pictorial maps through the ages, but they often have a cartoonish character. The illustrations can feel separate from the map, stamped on top like clipart. There are some great maps in this style, but I like to bake my illustrations into the geography, so everything flows together. I want my baboon wandering the mountains, not pasted over the top.

I include no extinct, introduced, or domesticated animals. Only native extant fauna (also no cryptids. Sorry, sasquatch enthusiasts). So Wild World does present Earth in an idealised fashion – although civilization’s footprint can still be seen (e.g. the current extent of the Amazon or the Aral Sea). By showcasing the majesty of Earth’s natural heritage, I hope it can inspire people to consider its importance – and its profound fragility.

Finally, I needed to move on from the North America project. After years on that one map, I’m putting all I learned into something new. Experimenting with new ideas, and (hopefully) proving not everything I draw takes years! I hope to finish and release prints in late 2021. You can sign up to be notified at www.antonthomasart.com/wild-world 

Q: It’s wild how you spent 5 years working on your map North America: Portrait of a Continent. How did that project come about? Did you ever think about giving up in those 5 years? 

A: In 2012, while living in Montréal, I drew a map of North America on a refrigerator. The fridge was old and covered in rust stains, so my housemate painted it white. Looking at the bright new surface, he asked me to draw something to liven it up.

At this point I’d been backpacking the continent for two years, working as a cook, a labourer, turfing lawns, busking… whatever kept me moving. I had grown obsessed with the geography I saw. Visions of a grand map consumed me, one that would showcase that vastness – filled with skylines, landscapes, and animals. So, in a creative frenzy, I used the fridge to test this idea.

Fast-forward to 2014, and I was living in Melbourne, Australia. After the fridge I’d drawn a large map called South Asia & Australasia, this time with colour pencils (on paper, not a fridge). This gave me the experience required to draw North America properly. I thought it might take six months, but as the map progressed so did my skills. The detail became increasingly refined. The research became more in-depth. It was all done in my spare time (nights, weekends), as I maintained a day-job to pay the bills. It was an astounding amount of work, compounded by constant re-drawing due to my technical improvement. In the end, I completed the map in early 2019: almost five years later!

The odyssey hijacked my life but giving up never crossed my mind. I loved drawing it; the map offered me meaning and direction at a difficult time. Midway through the project I attended the NACIS conference in Colorado Springs (2016), meeting a wonderful cartography community for the first time. The map was well-received, and this was a crucial boost. What I learned at NACIS was revelatory, while the response to my map hardened my resolve to finish it.

Q: Can you walk me through the process of drawing each geographical area, especially for areas that you have never physically visited or seen?

A: Everything starts with research. When I get to a new region, I read all I can about it. I do so in stages, starting with physical geography. I must get a sense of where the mountains, plains, forests, deserts, and rivers are. I open new tabs on anything intriguing and follow the breadcrumbs.

Then, I move past physical geography. In the case of North America, there was a huge layer of cultural research. Where are the cities? What are the iconic landmarks? I read about the history, economy, sports, arts, flora, fauna and more. I am always searching for that which would be familiar to a local.

In the case of Wild World, I bypass much of this stage and go straight to animals. What are the apex predators? What are the most famous animals in the region? Animals are often used in regional iconography (e.g., New Zealand’s kiwi), what are these? I look across the animal kingdom – mammals, birds, reptiles, fish etc. I check national parks and nature reserves, as they preserve wildlife populations and have plenty of information available.

This is all done online, and everything I draw is cross-referenced. You cannot count on Wikipedia for everything. If it is suggested that the national bird of Angola is the red-crested turaco, I need more than just a sentence without citation. I look out for local sources, hashtags on Instagram that may be leads, even checking Angolan government and tourism websites.

While researching, I mark off ideas in pencil on the map. I pin important locations on Google Earth, such as mountain peaks or national parks. Once I’ve learned enough, I can see the artwork in my mind. I ink in the labels, grab my pencil, and begin sketching.

Q: Is there an artist, philosopher, or cartographer that you get inspiration from?

A: Heinrich Berann’s painted panoramas are legendary. His map of Yellowstone had a big impact on me. The way in which it is both landscape art and a map, without concern for fitting into either category, is wonderful. I think these categories can be confusing anyway – most cartographers are visual artists too. Berann’s work feels unbothered by such distinctions, and his maps are magnificent.

Many in other fields have been inspirations on my maps. Ernest Hemingway, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, and Ibrahim Gonzales (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) come to mind. Jack Kerouac’s descriptions of American geography were very influential. Creative inspiration is not field-specific, everything in life flows together to inspire what you do.

Q: You made a world map with dried peas at NACIS Tacoma. Aside from that, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve used to make a map?

A: Ah, that was fun! Well, I made a map of New Zealand by cutting up a pair of jandals (“flip flops” as they’re known in the States), a map of Australia with vegemite smeared on toast, and a cat fur world map after a friend groomed their fluffy cat (the only map that ever made me sneeze).

Most recently, while on holiday in Tasmania, I drew a map of Tas in the sand every time I was on a beach. Early on, the map wasn’t great due to my unfamiliarity with the island. But as my trip progressed, the maps improved as I filled in my knowledge. I drew them on beaches in the north, south, east and west – even on sandy riverbanks in the interior.

Q: I really enjoyed your jamming sessions at the NACIS virtual event. What kind of music do you like to play? Do you listen to music when you’re drawing? 

A: It was so fun to play some music with my fellow cartographer/musicians at NACIS! Hopefully it’ll be in person one day. I play guitar and sing, predominantly blues and soul. I listen to a lot of music while drawing, and often like to explore music from the region I’m mapping. This method helps you to feel immersed in the place at hand – especially important when you can’t travel there. Music is a most powerful expression and reflection of place. Ask yourself, what does a place sound like? With this, you begin to approach the beating heart of a region, a culture, a spiritual channel that transcends language.

Plus, music mapping is a great way to discover new music! Music that you may never come across otherwise.

Q: What’s your life philosophy, and what advice do you give to our GeoHipster readers?

A: I feel at my core I try to remember life – and this planet in which it unfolds – is filled with wonder and adventure. It’s more vast, beautiful and terrifying than any fantasy world in fiction. Certainly, in ways it is also a tragedy, and that is a burden and a puzzle. But our mere presence itself is extraordinary, and an appreciation for the vastness of the Earth helps one to consider that broader picture. To move beyond yourself. It’s why I hike, it’s why I explore music, it’s why I love maps. I don’t want to ever forget how amazing this life is, no matter how precarious things can seem.

As for maps, I would just say… try to make maps that interest you. Follow the path that your curiosity urges. If you’re having fun with it, it will be easier to remain passionate and work hard, thus acquiring the requisite hours to get better and better.

Q: What does being a geohipster mean to you?

A: In all honesty I’m not quite sure, except to say I think I was a geohipster “before it was cool” (as any good hipster activity should be)? Referring to my Montréal fridge days, circa 2012 I was a 22-year-old bike-riding line cook trying to speak French (badly), who would return to my houseplant-filled apartment in La Petite-Italie to drink Québécois beer and draw a map on my refrigerator. Hopefully I acquired enduring geohipster creds from this!

Q: Where can we purchase your beautiful maps? 

A: Prints of my maps are available at www.antonthomasart.com – shipping worldwide. The North America map is currently available, and Wild World prints should be ready later in 2021. You can subscribe to be notified when it’s available at: www.antonthomasart.com/wild-world 

Jorge Sanz: “I like to have an eye on what is out of the mainstream industry trends”

Jorge Sanz is a geospatial technologist from Valencia, Spain. He studied Surveying, Cartography, and Geodesy engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia. For 15 years, Jorge has been working on consultancy, sales engineering, support, and development of Geographical Information Systems with a high focus on Open Source Software and Open Data. He has been a long-term contributor to the OSGeo Foundation and other initiatives globally and locally.

Jorge was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: You advertise yourself as a cartographer In flip flops. What does that mean to you?

A: Yeah, I use that in my Twitter bio, haha. Saying that I’m in flip-flops, I mean I’m easygoing, I don’t take myself too seriously on that social network, and above anything else, I stay positive by all means. My whole career has been around bringing the geospatial dimension to all kinds of projects and products, so I’m probably far away from what ordinary people consider a cartographer does. Still, I think it is a nice way to describe myself.

Q: How did you become a cartographer?

A: Maps have always fascinated me way before computers. Exploring the world from my bedroom, staring at an old atlas for hours, and then reading novels and comics was a big pastime in my childhood. Then computers came; I was lucky to be exposed to the BASIC programming language when I was 13 years old or so, proving to be very useful later at university. Anyway, since I loved geography, maths, and technical drawing, joining the Surveying Engineering school felt natural and easy. At university afterward, I realized that the typical Civil Engineering path for surveyors was not for me. I was interested in pursuing more advanced topics like GPS networks, geophysics, cartography production, GIS, etc. I majored in Geodesy, but I ended up finishing my formal studies doing a GIS project that definitely drove me to geospatial development, web-mapping, and Open Source software.

Q: Can you talk to me about your involvement with open source? And how did it shape your career?

A: The thesis project to get my degree was a GIS developed with Visual Basic 6 and ArcObjects 8, creating a desktop application to explore and manage a regional irrigation infrastructure. Even though I loved the result, it was 2004, and it seemed evident to me that the future of information management was not in desktop applications but on the web. I spent a few more weeks exploring options to publish all this data differently. At that moment, I was already playing with Linux, GRASS, and other Open Source components, so I quickly got into some straightforward PHP programming and UMN MapServer.

OK, so I arrived at Open Source as a user and very noob developer. After I got my degree, I stayed at the university on a research grant, with the idea of starting a Ph.D. and hopefully an academic career. On the other hand, I was already participating in GIS mailing lists in Spanish for a few years and, more recently, in the MapServer users group. At some point, there was some sort of extensive discussion there about Autodesk willing to rebrand their MapGuide product with the MapServer name. After many emails, I learned a new foundation was created to serve as an umbrella for MapServer and other Open Source projects.

Those were very active years for Open Source and Geo. The new OSGeo Foundation was a breath of collaboration and the perfect space for developers and users looking for like-minded folks in a world dominated by proprietary products. A group of Spanish-speaking users gathered. We started to translate the OSGeo website, discuss our own mailing lists, and eventually got our own conference here in Spain, called SIG Libre organized by the Girona University Geography and Remote Sensing department (SIGTE).

It also meant the time I left the academic path and joined Prodevelop, a small consultancy company in Valencia looking for someone with cartography and technical skills. I joined to help to develop an ArcIMS plugin for gvSIG, an Open Source desktop GIS that the Valencian Government started as part of a broader migration to Open Source. The company itself was also shifting to Open Source for their own projects. I worked with them for over ten years, and I was lucky to participate in many other projects using many different products: Deegree, GeoNetwork, GeoServer, Open Layers, etc. In fact, my first contribution to the SIG Libre conference was an article written together with Miguel Montesinos, Prodevelop’s CTO, to review and explore the Open Source GIS ecosystem. It was a great way to dive into and learn about the many different initiatives already available back then!

After Prodevelop, I moved to CARTO, where I worked for four years as a Solutions Engineer first, later also managing the Support Team. It was fantastic to join the company and be part of a team that develops an Open Source product, helping clients understand and use it for their own products.

Q: What kind of cool things are you building at Elastic?

A: Elastic has an extensive portfolio of products where Geo has had a small presence for many years. The first time I used Elasticsearch on an actual project was around 2013. I was amazed by how easy and powerful the product was to store and search large geodata with a developer-friendly interface.

I work at the Kibana team in Elastic. Kibana is a web frontend to manage and explore data in Elasticsearch and a platform for vertical solutions for the Security, Search, and Observability industries. Almost all those verticals in some way can leverage the geospatial dimension. I work at the team that develops the Maps application and the Elastic Maps Service. The Maps application allows users to visualize and explore Elasticsearch geodata and then put it together with other visualization types like bar charts, gauges, histograms, etc. But the cool thing is that Elastic Maps is also a component for the rest of the solutions. You can see a map in the Machine Learning classification app if you are working with country ISO codes. You can explore your Internet network connections on a map, thanks to the geolocation of IP addresses. You can understand differences in how well your application performs in different parts of the world or identify clusters of sources of cyberattacks on your IT infrastructure. The use cases are endless, and I’m always excited to learn that a new team at Elastic is adding the Maps component to their app.

My main focus is on the Elastic Maps Service, where the Kibana and Infrastructure teams work together to provide a reliable set of geospatial services for our platform. We serve our own basemap and data boundaries, created from OpenStreetMap, Wikidata, and NaturalEarth databases, contributing actively to the OpenMapTiles project as our upstream technology stack.

Elastic is broadly used in air-gapped environments. One of the recently developed projects is a self-hosted version of our services, helping our clients deploy their own maps server. This way, their users can experience Kibana in the exact same way any other clients do.

Oh, by the way, Jenny Allen, current Kibana Maps team lead, was also interviewed at Geohipster when she was working at HERE 🙂.

Q: Aside from being active in the foss4g community, you’re involved with Geoinquietos in Spain. Tell me more about that, and what’s something unique about Geoinquietos?

A: Geoinquietos is a natural evolution of that OSGeo Spanish-speaking community I mentioned before. With the OSGeo Foundation, the FOSS4G conference started as well, and in 2010 it was held in Barcelona. After the conference, the local committee realized they liked working together and continued gathering, and that’s how Geoinquiets started (Geoinquietos in the Catalan language). You can read more about that story at Raf Roset’s geohipster interview. Afterward, other cities in Spain and South America followed that lead, creating a loose network of people interested in Open Source and Open Data.

Geoinquietos is not really unique. It’s very similar to other initiatives like Maptime or Geomob. They all are about that same old human need of gathering and sharing. You know, we are all busy with our work, quite often with people that don’t share our interest in Geo, so having the chance to meet up with like-minded folks is just great. I love Geoinquietos because you can have at the same table a developer, an archaeologist, a surveyor, and an entrepreneur, all together talking about OpenStreetMap, urban planning, routing tools, and whatnot.

I also like the idea of many of us having some strong connections in different groups. It is great you can visit a city and be sure some folks will want to meet up, or the opposite, to know a geo-friend is coming to town and a few locals will want to gather and have a chat.

Q: I read on your blog that you’re a big sailor. How did you get into that? Any future sailing goals?

A: Oh, you said it wrong. I’m big, period. And then I’m a bit of a sailor 😂. I got into sailing only around ten years ago when I started attending sailing practice with my Prodevelop friends some Friday afternoons after work. Shortly after, I got a skipper license to learn more about the craft and began to participate in sailing activities in bigger yachts. In 2016 I joined the Oosterschelde to sail from Douarnenez in France to Oban* in Scotland. I realized then that that was the kind of sailing I loved the most: a big schooner where everyone in the crew had to hoist sails, take the wheel, help on the galley, and learn together about the sea.

One of the many things I love about this kind of activity is that you join an effort to move the boat from point A to point B, and everyone is needed. You work in shifts that rotate through the day, collaborating in the common goal of arriving at B successfully. People from different cultures, ages, and backgrounds, total strangers before starting the trip, and enclosed in a not so ample space 24 hours a day, need to learn many things quickly. This gets you in a very particular mood, a mix of confusion, excitement, positivism, and sometimes a bit of fear. Some may be experienced sailors, others like more occasional practitioners, some absolutely new to the experience, but everyone learns and enjoys the trip together. I totally recommend it, no previous experience is needed, and it is OK for all ages. I’ve sailed with people in their 20s and in their 80s.

BTW, there’s nothing like arriving at a harbor (maybe even in a different country!) after a few days on the sea, eager to explore what the place has to offer.

Last December, I became a dad, so I don’t really think I’ll have the time or the motivation for long sailing trips in the near term. Yet, on my bucket list, I have the Atlantic Ocean crossing; something like Cape Verde to the Caribbean would be incredible. Another dream would be to sail to Antarctica. I have also to admit I have never been on a regular touristy cruise, maybe that’s something we can do as a family until my son is old enough to join me on a long sailing trip!

Q: What’s your most geo geek interest?

A: Ahh, so hard to say. I’m interested primarily in technology around web mapping and data processing. I love “analog” cartography styling, and watching NACIS talks about hand-drawn maps is always a joy. Still, at the end of the day, any advancement in the Open Source to process, distribute, and display geospatial data will always attract me. An example of a recent interest would be the advances in file formats optimized for the Cloud and HTTP Range Get requests. COGs (Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF) are already pretty popular and being adopted, but there’s already a new cool kid on the block that would be the COG vector counterpart called FlatGeobuf. I hope we will see many projects experimenting around this new format, and at some point I’d love to tinker with it as well.

Q: What makes you a geohipster?

A: You mean apart from the flip flops, right? Just kidding 😂. I always try to stay positive and open-minded, with a never-ending curiosity for all kinds of topics. I like to have an eye on what is out of the mainstream industry trends. Maybe that makes me some sort of geohipster, or at least a good Geoinquieto 🤗.

*Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this interview misspelled Oban as “Hoban”. In an effort to avert a worldwide Twitter flame war, we have made the correction and added a link.

Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Ursula Kaelin, May

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m in my late twenties and currently working as a research assistant at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland.

I obtained a Master’s degree in Geomatics at ETH Zurich. After an apprenticeship I was still struggling to see in which direction my career path could lead and now I’m lucky to somewhat delay this decision a bit further while working on a diversity of research projects.

After the working hours mainly in front of the screen I like to use my free time for some walks in nature or doing creative stuff. It’s not hard to guess that the preferred material right now is paper.

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 playing around with Sonobe-units, assembled them into smaller modular objects and brought some as decoration to the office. The question of a work colleague if it would be possible to put them together as a map was answered with a hesitant “yes” because of the intimidating amount of needed modules to get a decent resolution, but now the idea was stuck in my head.

After the initial planning (~670 modules) and purchasing of the paper a (rather soft) Corona-lockdown with prescribed home office took place. I then not only had enough time to realize the project, it also helped me to stay sane and gave me a real incentive to finish it so that it could be used as my video-conferencing background.

The picture shown in the calendar is taken at our office space where the map found its new home. I myself am again back in the home office waiting for better times and sometimes killing some more time with folding…

I want to mention Peter Keller (@valleyfolder) for the inspiration with his Sonobe-unit carpets that sometimes look like heat maps. Designers of the models included in the map are Patricia Crawford (full rigged ship), Paolo Bascetta (Rosa dei Venti), Jo Nakashima (velociraptor) and Kade Chan (gray whale).

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

A: A black-white raster image showing the continents and some code in Python lead to the basic construction plan of the desired resolution and with randomly assigned colors. Other tools used were paper, a knife, my hands and some sticks and nails to hang it to the wall. And as already mentioned: No glue.

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.