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 

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.

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.

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.

Sahana Murthy to GeoHipster: “GIS is a very large umbrella, brimming with opportunities”

Picure of Sahana Murthy


Sahana Murthy is the General Manager of Loveland Technologies, where she manages the team, the product, and the overall corporate & marketing strategy. Prior to Loveland, Sahana had extensive experience working with software companies and startups of all sizes across USA & India. Over the years, she has worn multiple hats with roles ranging from a software developer, developer evangelist, product manager, and product marketer to most recently leading a startup as its COO.

Sahana was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: I’m told your current job is your first in the geospatial area. Tell us about your journey to get here and what drew you to this gig.

A: I have been in tech for over 10 years now. Started off as a techie working on proprietary software for a large tech conglomerate. I was lost in a sea of employees and techies, never fully knowing what value my work was adding to the larger scheme of things at the company. There was very little creativity and very little autonomy to my work. And then, one fine day, I discovered the magical work of open source and tech startups. That totally changed the trajectory of my career path and interests, in general. I haven’t looked back since. I have been working with tech startups in different industries and technologies from AI/ML to SaaS/PaaS to now a GIS software & data company. With every new gig, I have looked for a different technology and product suite and that’s what drew me to Loveland. The world of GIS and an incredible team that has tirelessly put together a comprehensive dataset of 143 million parcels across the US. No small feat!

Q: Loveland aims to be the place that all sorts of folks seek out for information on land parcels, and you’ve pieced together a nationwide dataset with pretty amazing coverage. Did you know how much of a “holy grail” this was for geospatial folks before you joined Loveland? What kinds of reactions have you gotten from new users?

A: Yes, we are the “Go-To-Source” for all things parcel data. 🙂
I sort of knew how important and valuable this dataset was before I joined the company. But I think I now truly understand how hard it is to :
acquire and collect this data
Standardize it across the board. Every county’s data is so different from another. So normalizing it – cleaning up the data for easier consumption – is easier said than done.
provide it in 5 file formats to ensure customers get what they want
cut through the bureaucracy to obtain the data from counties
find and integrate valuable datasets that can augment our already valuable data – like the USPS vacancy dataset and buildings footprints data.

The reactions we receive from users have mostly been about the quality and coverage of our data, the price, and our transparency. We are the most affordable parcel data vendor with high quality coverage. We communicate all of our data updates to customers on a monthly basis. So they are always aware of what we are adding, updating and improving. Our origins lie in “democratizing data” and we believe we are doing that well.

Q: I myself know what kind of an immense task this is, since I’ve been in charge of compiling similar data for Minnesota’s 87 counties for years. What’s the hardest part to automate?

A: Well, we’ve built a state-of-the-art ML model that lets us clean parcel data to perfection in a matter of seconds! 😉
No, but seriously, the hardest part to automate is normalizing and cleaning the data! We do rely on a very robust set of open source geo tools like PostGIS, QGIS, and GDAL. There’s still a lot of manual work backed by the judgement and experience of our parcel team.

Nearly every one of the 3,200 counties in the US manages its data independently. There’s very little consistency from place to place even for basic columns like “owner”: it could be “deedholder, “firstname”, “fname”, “propow”, or pretty much anything else. And you’d think that a field called “Parcel ID” might be unique — but it rarely is.

Generally, counties within states are more like each other than counties outside of those states, but not necessarily. Also, cleaning the data can be quite tricky at times. Working with this data makes it apparent how much human error can be involved, especially when it comes to casting columns that should be integers or double precision from text. Date field conversion can also be quite tricky at times, depending on the formatting used by a place. A lot of rules built up over time plus the keen eyes of our data team help us keep quality high.

Q: I know there are a lot of counties in the US that sell their parcel data in an attempt to recover costs. Do you think these counties are aware that you’re repackaging their data and selling it yourself? If so, have you faced any opposition from local government officials?

A: Some counties have been slower or more reluctant to openly share their parcel data than others, but the overwhelming trend we see is towards more data accessibility. Over the last five years, many more counties and entire states have moved towards open parcel data, and we haven’t had any problems in displaying, sharing, and providing services around it. It’s not uncommon for us to have cities and counties as customers and they all want easy access to the data.

As time goes on, we anticipate that the public facts contained in parcel data will be ubiquitous, and the value that we add to the base data through organizing, standardizing, and adding additional data from other sources, including machine learning, will be where a lot of the value is. This is also a value add that we can provide back to counties, so it’s a win win.

A few years ago the team did some research to see how much county assessors who do still sell parcel data are making from it, and who they are selling it to. The numbers were very low and the people they are selling it to are often resellers who mark it up and resell it. We’re definitely not alone in the space of selling parcel data, and we work hard to be good, positive actors who are helpful to local governments and the public.

At the end of the day, parcel data is made of public record facts about how the country is subdivided, owned, taxed, and used. The public nature of the subdivision of land in the US stretches back to the earliest days of the country and big public programs like the US Public Land Survey which started in 1785. We see ourselves as providing a missing service by bringing all these local datasets together into a big picture of how we own, use, and inhabit the country. The reaction to that has been positive.

Q: Are you scraping any REST endpoints like OpenAddresses, or are you more frequently downloading from open data sites and then loading into your database?

A: The nationwide trend towards making parcel data open to the public has been important to us. We do download data from data portals and scrape from public REST APIs. Our team of parcel prospectors is both incredibly nice and incredibly talented at collecting the data. We haven’t yet gone to digitize counties that are still paper-based — maybe someday.

Q: How does the team decide what attributes to standardize on across the country? I’ve seen parcel datasets with some 90+ columns in them, but you seem to be flexing what you serve based on the sources. Is that hard to stay on top of?

A: We roughly based our schema around what the State of North Carolina uses to standardize their parcel data. We try to use columns that are broad, but also relatively unambiguous. There are occasional movements towards a federal standard, and that would be amazing.
Most places don’t have that depth of data as North Carolina has been working on their statewide dataset for a while, and helping local assessors get up to that level of detail. If a place doesn’t have as many fields, that’s what we work with.

As far as custom columns, we generally try and take a maximalist approach. For clients working exclusively within a very local scope, you never know what column is a must-have. The benefit of having the schema is that at a larger scope it allows one to be pretty flexible in data exporting without porting over a ton of custom fields aggregated from various counties.

Q: Congrats on getting your data into Carto’s Data Observatory. What does that mean for your company?

A: Thank you. We are thrilled about our partnership with Carto. We love Carto and everything they have done and built in such a short span of time. They are a benchmark in the GIS world and to get our data into their product suite is absolutely amazing! What this means for us, I guess, is it’s a testament to the quality of our data and coverage. We have always known that, but when we have trusted members of the GIS world like Carto and Mapbox believing in our data, it’s great validation for all of our work! Our lean team of 14 works tenaciously to improve our product every single day and now everybody is starting to see that.

Q: I guess you can tell I love talking about parcel data. Let’s diverge, though: what kinds of things do you like to do in your free time? Any hobbies?

A: I’m guilty of varied interests! Although as a mom to a hyperactive 2 year old, I guess I don’t get to indulge in hobbies as much as I used to. 🙂
I love to cook, sing, and read. I’m sort of an amateur food blogger on Instagram right now.
Travel has always been a passion. Growing up, I maintained a travel log and dreamed of a career in travel some day. Of course, those days are behind me, but the passion for travel still continues.

Growing up in India, I had made a vow to travel to every state in India. I think I am at a 95% completion rate. It’s not so much about checking off the bucket list but more about discovering the rich cultural heritage and differences in every place. India is so diverse. People speak and write a different language, just 50 kilometers apart. And the only way to truly experience that is by traveling to every nook and corner. And of course, discovering the range of local foods is absolute heaven for a foodie like me. The hope is to do the same here in the US, and eventually worldwide.

Q: Since you’re new to geo, you probably haven’t read a lot of GeoHipster interviews. What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘geohipster’?

A: I actually have read some since I started with Loveland. I love the work that many of your featured geohipsters are doing. Although when I read those, the irony is all too evident to me. I’m an imposter GIS person at best right now (that will change in a few months I reckon). 🙂 My team however is GIS through and through.

The term ‘geohipster’ to me is someone, anyone – techie, non techie, GIS or non-GIS who’s passionate about their local geography and land grid! It could be an urban planner, a surveyor, a cartographer or someone like our CEO – Jerry Paffendorf who’s dedicated the past ten years of his life to change the property landscape of Detroit and continues to do that still, in his own way, outside of his work at Loveland.

Q: What kinds of advice would you give to folks in startups and SAAS looking to diversify into a field like geo? What advice would you give yourself the day before you started?

A: As someone who comes from a long line of tech startups and SaaS, the one thing I can guarantee is that working in geo would bring in just the same amount of challenge and excitement as any other industry. Typically, that’s what most folks who prefer working in startups are drawn to – an exciting, fast paced industry. Geo has not disappointed in that regard. Also, GIS is a very large umbrella, brimming with opportunities. The surveying and mapping market in the US is about $9.3 billion and growing, as of 2019. The sky’s the limit. Cooler things are happening and being built as we speak with droning technologies and use of AI & ML on aerial imagery. It’s an exciting time to switch over to Geo.

For me personally, since we are the “parcel/cadastral kind” in GIS, the advice I would have given myself is to prepare for working with the public sector. Until now, I’ve only worked in the private sector and managed customers in private sector verticals. So working with counties and the public sector is a different experience that I’m now learning to navigate. But, the exciting part about my job is that I get to straddle both sectors.

Belle Tissott to GeoHipster: Data Science and Teenage Bird Angst

Belle Tissott
Belle Tissott

Belle Tissott is an Assistant Director of Product Development at Digital Earth Australia, where she works to develop new methods to process and analyse satellite imagery in order to map and better understand Australia’s land and water. She is a programmer and mathematician, with a strong drive to do what she can to make a positive impact in the world.

Belle was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You came to spatial from IT, does that mean you have geo-imposter syndrome as well as programmer-imposter syndrome?

A: Yes, yes and a little bit more yes!

One of the things which has been both amazing and confronting working at Geoscience Australia is just how many insanely smart people there are here. And whilst it’s incredible to work with and learn from such talented peers, it is almost impossible not to doubt whether you’re good enough to be a part of this, and (for me) to wonder just when everyone will realise you’re a fraud.

I recently started opening up with peers about my self-doubt, and to my surprise, it didn’t make them think I’m incompetent. They were understanding, supportive and tended to share their own doubts and fears in return. Realising that imposter syndrome is a pretty universal thing certainly hasn’t removed the feelings entirely, but I find it has made them easier to ignore.

Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a hippy. Can you elaborate?

A: My parents moved to a hippy commune near Nimbin in New South Wales in the 70s, and built a beautiful house in the forest. We had limited power, no mains water and an outside toilet. I grew up there as a ‘free range’ kid, playing in the mud, swimming in the creek and adventuring in the forest. It was fantastic, but very different to your average suburban upbringing. I distinctly remember being shocked when I was to start high school and we were expected to wear shoes EVERY day!

Interestingly whilst I feel like a hippy here, I feel pretty conservative when I go home to Nimbin. I think identifying as a hippy comes from what I see as important and noticing how it’s different from the norm. I feel like ‘normal’ society trains people to put a very high value on wealth and reputation, whereas these things are extremely unimportant to me. I just want to be happy, have a positive impact on the world and those around me.

Q: As a hippy, how did you get into IT?

A: Very much by accident.

I dropped out of school after year 10 and went to TAFE (Australian vocational training) and did a Diploma in Apparel Manufacturing. Throughout my studies I struggled with the way the fashion industry treated young girls, and realised by the end of it that I couldn’t comfortably be part of this toxic world. I was lost. My boyfriend at the time was applying to do Bachelor of Information Technology at university the following year, and, very much as a joke, I applied too. It sounded interesting enough, I liked computer games and problem solving, but an IT-based profession wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind, plus I didn’t finish school! To my utter shock I got in and loved the programming side of it. I could lose myself in learning languages and creating something from nothing.

Q: As an “IT gurl”, how did you get into Geoscience Australia (GA)?

A: I had a friend working as a contractor at GA and she was aware of them looking for more developer staff and thought I would be a perfect fit. I didn’t think I had the skills they were after (that good old self-doubt messing with ability to push forward), however she encouraged me to apply anyway. I was offered an initial contract of just 6 weeks working on their metadata catalogue. With only 6 weeks guaranteed and being the primary income earner for my family, I couldn’t leave my existing job, or relocate my family to Canberra, so this made for a very challenging period. I moved to Canberra alone, worked for GA during the day and did my other work over evenings & weekends, and went home to see my partner and kids every 2 weeks for just a couple of days.

All went well and I was offered a 6 month contract continuation, I left my other job and we packed up our life and made the move from sunny, warm, beachy Byron Bay, to freezing cold Canberra. Later in the year a lead dev position became available and I scored that to become a permanent part of the GA family!

Q: As a GA staff member, how did you get to work in Earth observation?

A: Ah, I think this goes back to when I was out of work for a while when my kids were young. I decided I should go back to university so I would be more employable after the time off. I chose a BSc majoring in mathematics and statistics (because I thought studying maths would be fun!). It was, and it wasn’t… I loved the maths, but got a full-time job part way through, so ended up working & studying with two young kids, which is not great for your sanity!

Anyways, how does this relate to EO? So, working at GA I was doing web development, which is what I’d always done. However, some fabulous managers saw that my maths/stats background could be good for scientific development work, so I got the opportunity to learn Python and work within the Digital Earth Australia team creating products from satellite imagery. I realised pretty quickly that this was where I was meant to be. I didn’t even know it was what I was looking for in a job, but I love everything about it now!

Q: You moved to Canberra, the center of bureaucracy, from Byron Bay, the center of… non-bureaucracy. Tell us about the two cities.

A: The two places are so vastly different, but both amazing in their own way. Byron Bay is full of natural beauty. It has the most amazing beaches in the world as well as lush rain forests and crystal clear creeks. Working in Byron I would pop to the beach for a dip during my lunch break over summer — it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave such an idyllic place, particularly for Canberra. Before spending time in Canberra my view of it was dull, grey, and full of boring public servants. We moved for work. It has FAR surpassed my expectations (though maybe not hard given what I thought of it!).

Belle with household animals

Primarily it’s the people I’ve met who have made me feel so happy to live here. My love of science at times made me feel a little out of place in Byron Bay, where conspiracy theories and alternative remedies are so popular. Now, I’m surrounded by kind, passionate, science-loving, fun people. But I miss the beach and lush forests. I miss moisture in general, I struggle with how dry Canberra is, and the sun in summer is like napalm, so I’m failing at growing veggies. But there are going to be ups and downs of all places, I like to stay focused on the ups of where I currently am — amazing, fabulous people!

Q: What you do is data science, so what does data science mean to you?

A: Data science to me is two-fold. It’s the fun in the challenge of finding new and wonderful ways to process, analyse and interpret insane amounts of data to extrapolate meaning and understanding. But it also is a way I feel I can connect my love of tech and programming, with my passion to do something positive for the world.

Q: I hear you like cosplay, what is your ultimate cosplay character?

A: The character I’ve done most is Harley Quinn. I like the happy/crazy combo, and the black/red is always fun to play with. More recently I however, if I were to have time, I would love to make some Twi’lek costumes as I think making the lekku (long fleshy head tail things) would be a fun challenge.

Q: Tell us about your parrot and teenage angst

A: Ooh our parrot was amazing. During a family weekend walk up Black Mountain we came across an injured fledgling crimson rosella. Despite being warned that it would give a solid bite (it was so tiny I thought it’d be ok), I swooped in to save the day. One bleeding finger later we were heading home with a new little baby. After a check from a vet we were told that it had a poorly healed broken wing and that it would likely never be able to fly so “I can put it down, or you now have a pet bird” — the kids were there, so we now had a pet bird (Pippin).

Surprisingly, the cat was fantastic about it and would lay there while Pip groomed him. At first all was fabulous, and he (I think) gradually learned to fly a little, from head-to-head. As he grew into a teen however he became a jerk and we were suddenly living in a house tormented by an erratically aggressive, but beautiful, sky rat. Pip’s flying got stronger and stronger. Amazingly, at the same time we began to get visits from a rosella family who would sit on our deck and chat to him through the window. One day we opened the door to take washing out and he swooped out to join the family. They all flew off together. It was beautiful to see. We would occasionally see them all at the local park, all very close to each other and him being watched over by the adults in the group.

Q: I found this fantastic picture of you and your kids in Nepal, how was that journey with young kids?

Nepalese mountains

A: It was absolutely amazing for a number of reasons, with the story behind why and how we organised this trip being just as big a part as the incredible adventures we had.

This was a bit of a mental health trip for me. I was unexpectedly made redundant and really struggled to deal with the emotions around it all. I felt rejected and like a failure. I didn’t know how to find the confidence to step back out and look for more work. I just wanted to run away and take some time to process my feelings without the stressors of normal life. The support from my family was what got me through.

Me: “I think I need to walk into the mountains in Nepal”
Matt (my partner): books tickets for the end of the week.

I have a soft spot for Nepal, the people are so friendly and the mountains are breathtaking. This was my second trip there, the first one being 12 years earlier with a 7 month old baby in a backpack. The kids weren’t that young this time (9 & 12), so very capable of walking decent distances. We spent 6 weeks wandering in the mountains and exploring new places together, it was an incredible bonding experience for us as a family and I would definitely recommend it. Also, I came back grounded, calm, at peace with what happened, and confident to get out there and work again.

Interviewer’s note: Belle has booked another trip to Nepal for December 2019 and I take full credit for re-inspiring her!

Q: And lastly, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I don’t know if I am. I don’t drink beer and I’m REALLY bad at growing a beard. The only time I wear a flannel is when I’m staying with my parents and wear my Dad’s. I am however a decent coffee snob. Firstly, instant coffee is NOT real coffee. Coffee which has been reheated time and time again is NOT real coffee. Plunger coffee is rough, but in desperation I could consume. But really, espresso latte with properly heated (not burnt) milk is my go to.  Or, if I’m channeling my inner hippy, a soy dandy latte (I know, not coffee – but fabulous nonetheless).

Welcome to our new site…

A picture of the GeoHipster sticker in Southern California
Our #geohipster stickers get around, even to sunny Southern California. Photo Credit: Jason J. Benedict.

Hello GeoHipster fans! It’s Mike D. here, checking in from Minnesota. Whether it’s hot or cold here, I like to think of this photo Jason Benedict shared with us via Twitter! I’m always excited to see our stickers making their way around the world.

But enough about the weather! In case you missed it in our post this past weekend, we’ve officially migrated all of our content here to this brand-spanking new WordPress site, complete with a new header image, mobile-friendlier design, and a spiffy SSL cert that hopefully keeps your network admins from blocking us.

Why now? Well, when I incorporated GeoHipster as an independent business back in 2017, the “OG” Atanas Entchev transferred most of the GeoHipster assets and operational responsibilities to me. One of the things that was left behind was the WordPress site he started (way back in 2013!) on the geohipster.com domain. To be frank, I just wasn’t ready to take over that part of the GeoHipster enterprise.

But now that I’ve got a few good years under my belt running the business, it seemed like the right time to make a transfer. Atanas and I have settled into our respective roles along with chief designer Jonah Adkins, and we’ve got all kinds of ways for you to support our work, including of course our 2020 Calendar. And we’ll continue publishing long-form, in-depth interviews with the most interesting characters in the geospatial world. To me, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come since late 2013, when Will Skora transferred the @geohipster Twitter account to Atanas and Glenn Latham suggested the poll about what defines the GeoHipster.

We hope you like our new design and the benefits that come along with it! See you out there in the interwebs, or on Null Island…

Celebrating six years with a new site, and a new poll

On December 7, 2013, the “OG” Atanas Entchev posted a poll on geohipster.com entitled “What defines the GeoHipster?” Little did he know at the time that he would be launching a movement (or something) that would be filled with hundreds of interviews, opinion pieces, stickers, calendars, and t-shirts. Well, six years in, we’re still going strong, with more volunteers, a brand new 2020 calendar, and now, this newly designed website. So what better way to celebrate our six-year anniversary than with a reboot of the poll that started it all?

Johannes Kröger to GeoHipster: “$existing_free_software can do that already.”

Johannes (Hannes) Kröger is a geospatial professional from Hamburg, Germany. During most of this interview, Hannes was working as a research assistant in the Lab for Geoinformatics and Geovisualization (g2lab) at HafenCity University Hamburg. Recently Hannes joined a consulting firm to challenge his expertise in the real world. His unprofessional outlet is a chaotic stream of things at https://twitter.com/cartocalypse.

Hannes was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Hannes Kröger, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, still live here and love this green city near the river. For more than 4 years I have been working as a research assistant (and pretend-PhD-student) in the Lab for Geoinformatics and Geovisualization at the small HafenCity Universität Hamburg. Most of my time was spent on teaching (mostly programming-related) but every now and then there were exciting projects to dive into. I introduced Python as go-to programming language in the study program and am damn proud and happy about that!

Q: How did you get into Geo/GIS?

A: I grew up in a family of sailors, so from an early age on nautical charts and maps were a common sight. Globes also always fascinated me. Later I became the designated navigator when sailing with friends, which involved lots of button pressing on our trusty Garmin GPS 12 unit. That device enabled a friend and me to go geocaching back when it was still a very special thing (there was just a low two digit number of caches in the whole metro area of Hamburg, iirc). Later I discovered OpenStreetMap and enjoyed mapping parts of my city, when not even the main roads were fully connected yet. It felt special, important, and so motivating: there was a map visibly growing in coverage day after day. That was awesome!

After school, when I was lost and wondering what to do, a friend suggested that her study program, Geomatics, would be something fitting my interests. I enrolled and felt at home quickly. I remember professors laughing at my enthusiasm for OSM, that inferior, easily manipulated, non-official data source. Ha, who’s laughing now! And luckily, struggling to get ArcGIS to run on Linux with Wine (I use Arch Linux btw), I discovered QGIS, completed my homework map in it, got asked by a colleague how I made it look so good and shortly after I never touched ArcGIS again. No regrets!

Q: Your enthusiasm for all things geo is evident to anyone who follows you on Twitter! Can you give us some examples of some exciting projects you are involved with and what softwares are involved?

A: Twitter is kind of my exhaust pipe for every-day experiments. I tend to lose interest after the proof-of-concept state, and I am not into marketing mundane things. So many prototypes never see a deserved polishing.

As most of my university job was filled by teaching and related duties, I usually did the exciting stuff in my free time. I find benchmarking different GeoTIFF compression and predictor settings with GDAL exciting in case you were wondering. And I will never get bored with silly geometric things in QGIS: Fake Chromatic Aberration and Dynamic Label Shadows in QGIS | Making a Star Wars Hologram in QGIS | making Flowers in QGIS,

or Dynamic elevation profile lines (“Joy Division” maps).

Doing Average Earth From Space from satellite data was lots of fun. The tools involved were wget, ffmpeg, imagemagick, gdal, lots of Bash scripting with various unixy tools and a bit of Python.

And while I also like to just play around with newly released software, I am hipster enough to usually groan and think “wait, $existing_free_software can do that already if you just learned it, you clueless developer with your NIH syndrome”.

Q: It is amazing what you can do by combining geometry generators, blending modes, live layer effects, functions/variables, and data defined overrides in QGIS! Do you ever find a way to sneak these techniques into the classroom?

A: It is so much fun! Being able to manipulate and animate geodata through those means enables me to feel like the little procedural cARTographist I wish I was. Some of my very first (BASIC) programs were explorations of geometric concepts we had just learned about in school and my fascination for that never ceased.

That one GIS course I was co-teaching was fairly basic and focuses on GIS itself but since my colleague and I were (and are!) passionate about cartography, we also showed things like QGIS draw effects and blending modes to the students. And let me tell you, everybody loves drop shadows!

Q: What’s your take on the Shapefile?

A: It is simple and it came early. Thus it’s widely supported, but also really dumb and antiquated. Seriously, it is. I wish its proponents would consider the benefits of a single-file format that supports metadata and more. Have they never gotten just “data.shp” in a mail?

By the way, did you know that @shapefiIe is actually using an upper-case “i” for the “l” bit because the true handle was taken already? What a deceitful fraud! @GeoPackage1 on the other hand, now that is one classy, prophetic name!

Q: What do you do for fun outside when you’re not teaching or playing with visualizations?

A: I write this answer from the Scottish highlands where I ended up spontaneously for a hike along Loch Lochy (huehuehue!) and Loch Ness. A considerable part of that is battling rural public transport and the unpredictable weather. I love the outdoors. Probably the sailing navigator’s cartography genes. Anyone got a boat for me?

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why/why not?

A: You people always want to label people like me, pffft. Well actually, I strictly limit myself to home-grown, sustainable FLOSS GIS software; I have strong opinions about data compression; I think Mapbox is pretty evil; I like neither Vinyl nor Shapefiles; I thought a lot about using semicolon here; and I use Arch Linux. I am ambivalent on the question and I know I’m right about that. So, yeah, I wish I wasn’t which just makes me one even more so.

Q: Any words of wisdom for our readers?

A: File bug reports if you want your tools to improve.

When you file a bug with a free and open-source project, take a moment to browse through open issues. Maybe you can give some input, maybe you can help a person who looked for tech support.

And always consider the humans behind the code, they are what makes it tick, and you should appreciate their generosity no matter what just happened to your project’s files. Backup is cheap.

 

David Haynes to GeoHipster: “Learn the back end…you’ll be viable forever.”

David Haynes
David Haynes

David Haynes II is an Assistant Professor with the Institute for Health Informatics at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and a health geographer who uses cutting-edge spatial analysis methods to advance knowledge of health and cancer disparities. 

David was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: You got your undergrad degree in Biology, then a Master’s in GIS shortly after. I’ve met people who have taken all kinds of different roads to discover GIS, but I think a biology degree is a new one. So tell our readers, how did you get started in geospatial?

A: I went to a small liberal arts college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, (Coe College). When I originally went to school I thought I was going to be a medical doctor, so I took a lot of biology courses. I was generally interested in human and environmental biology. It was in an environmental biology course that a professor offered me a summer research position. She had heard that I was good with computers and needed some help analyzing GPS locations. That was my first real experience with “GIS and Geography”. We were running Arc 3.1 and I started playing with AML / Avenue. It was a very cool experience and led to me going to St. Mary’s in Winona, MN for my master’s in GIS.

Q: You and I crossed paths by working with some mutual colleagues in the Health disciplines. We both know that where someone lives, commutes, and works can have huge impacts on their health, but sometimes I’ve found the area to be relatively slow to adopt spatial technologies. Have you found the same, and if so, do you feel like you’re constantly selling the business case?

A: So the medical field like every field goes in waves. 20+ years ago there was the idea of the environment being a factor for causing negative health outcomes. However, GIS was just at its beginning for the broader community and much of that literature showed that the scale of analysis was critical for determining that. So health went away from that to personal behaviors and thinking that was the main cause. We are at a point now, we know that if we control for many of these personal demographic characteristics (age, race, sex), we still see large gaps or disparities. We hypothesize that the environment could explain the disparities. However, the environment now needs to be more specifically defined which is causing a headache for everyone. Most researchers approach this from the traditional epi point of view and try to add spatial on at the end. So I spend much of my time on studies that want to add spatial to them. Not many studies start with spatial as the primary focus.

Q: It does seem like the field of ‘health geography’ is growing. Can you tell us what it’s like, in your experience?

A: Yes, I think the ability to use smart devices is going to make Geography extremely important in designing interventions. I am thinking of designing a study for smoking cessation that would send you SMS notifications if you are in a business that sells tobacco. 

Q: How would you describe “health geo-informatics”? Is this just another way to say spatial (or GIS)?

A: Yeah, pretty much. I think my focus is to make health spatial and to integrate more sophisticated spatial analyses that most researchers wouldn’t. 

Q: You were once a rugby player. I don’t know much about the sport, but it appears to me to be a lot like soccer and American football: where an awareness of space, angles, and boundaries is an advantage. Did you ever think of it like that? Ever map your games?

A: Funny, Yes. I want to teach a class one day call the “Geography of Sport”. Actually all sports are about Geography. You have a limited defined extent in which you have to operate. In many classic team sports (i.e., football, basketball, hockey, etc.), the goal for the defense is to limit the space and time for different players. If a QB is throwing the football they need time and the receivers make the pass easier by creating distance between themselves and the defenders. Staying with football, every defense seeks to limit potential areas of the field while leaving other areas open. The offense tries to exploit these areas. I could go on all day about this as I really enjoy watching sports from a geographic perspective. One last thing, this is why the prevent defense in football gets no credit. The prevent defense is to prevent a touchdown on the hail mary pass not prevent the Tom Brady 5-10 yard passes. Defensive Coordinators need to develop new defenses that use a mixture of man to man with zone to be more effective in the 2 minutes offense.

Q: In Minnesota, we have a saying that there are only two seasons: winter, and construction. But you’re into aquaponics and sustainable gardening. Isn’t there a gardening analogy to that, like, “weeding and canning”?

A: Yeah, aquaponics is a labor of annoyance. It always starts out great and then something breaks two weeks later. But mostly I’m dreaming farmer. I read the book “5 Acres & a Dream” and was hooked. One day, that’s what I want to do. I’d be more of a hobby farmer in the day and do some serious programming at night.

Q: What do you think of some of the indoor, urban, industrial agriculture systems that are cropping up, sometimes as CSAs? Given the rising environmental costs of shipping, and unpredictable climate we’re facing, this seems to me like something we need to invest in more as a society. But can aquaponics really save the world?

A: Realistically, I think it’s a part of the solution. It won’t save the world, but it would improve some things like the food supply chain. Every year there are 10 e-coli outbreaks related to vegetables. This isn’t going to change. But this might be an area where aquaponics could help. I have grand ideas of how aquaponics could be used to provide benefits to society. Mostly, I do it to help my kids understand where food comes from and what waste is. I like aquaponics because it recycles the water and is kind of a closed-loop system, although I feed the fish. But I think getting people familiar with the idea of how an ideal nature system could operate would help us. It is an opportunity to learn more about ecosystems and how plants, animals, and people can all interact in a sustainable way.

Q: I’m not sure how much you know about GeoHipster, but you’re a big PostGIS user in a nascent field – which makes you different than a lot of people I know, but more like some of the “geohipsters” I’ve met. So what do you think, might you be a geohipster?

A: After re-reading your definition, I would definitely be a geohipster. Geography and using GIS in the broader health world isn’t new, but it is really in demand right now and this trend will likely continue for at least 5-10 years. I’d also say, like many of the geohipsters you have interviewed that I am a big advocate for spatial and try to help people understand why spatial is important. 

I’d say I’m a big spatial database advocate. I tend to use a variety of tools that fit the need of the project. Which I think is the mantra of your GeoHipster definition poll. I think industries and the medical world tend to be OK with the installation of a validated commercial software. However, that can take weeks or months. They always seem to have a database around and if you can move data into that they seem to roll with it. Databases just seem safe. Plus I think the ability to scale analyses out in databases is easier than programming. But you need to know how to program if you’re working with big data.

Q: You’ve got a year or more of teaching under your belt. What career advice would you give to your students – or to our readers?

A: If you are into Geography that is great, and if you are just coming into GIS I feel sorry and excited for you. The GIS field is really changing, which can be daunting at first. When I came into Geography there was a general feeling that you could learn ArcGIS and get a job. You could learn a second proprietary software and be set for life. Programming was something you could do, but wasn’t necessary. That has all changed for me and any future students.

Google Maps, MapBox, OpenStreet Map, Uber, Lyft. etc have all changed this. We are truly embracing the big data and computational science revolution. This means that you need to have mid-level understanding of computer science. You need to know how to program in an Object Oriented Language for either front end or back end. I would tend to recommend students or new people to the field to learn the back-end over the front-end. Because there are a million web designers out there that can make a map better than you. They won’t know what they are doing. They won’t know what a coordinate system is and how it matters, but they can stick it together fast. The benefit of the back-end is that you will be viable forever if you apply your spatial analysis skill within a programming framework. Be flexible and adaptable to the programming platform. I write code in R, Python, SQL (PostGIS) and Scala. Some language may be your favorite, but keep your eyes open. One resource, I’ll point people to is Packt. They have a lot of good books that I’ve purchased online.