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!).
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?
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).
John Gravois is a developer at https://showrunner.io. Previously, as a Product Engineer at Esri he helped build ArcGIS Hub, maintained a handful of Leaflet plugins and coordinated with developers across the company to steer Open Source strategy. He has a tattoo of a California Raisin and when he’s not in front of a computer you can often find him tangled up in poison oak somewhere near his mountain bike.
I was pretty much computer illiterate when I started college. GIS pricked my ear because it would force me to wrestle the dragon and allow me to procrastinate a few more years before picking an actual ‘specific’ career track. The more data I wrangled, the more maps I made and the more analysis I organized the more interested I became in writing code to automate the boring stuff and share my work with folks who had other jobs to do than cracking open ArcGIS Desktop.
I worked for an environmental consultant before i started in tech support. Being ‘the’ GIS guy was okay, but the pace of my learning skyrocketed when i started in Esri tech support in 2009. It was also just a lot more fun working with so many talented, non-territorial, strong communicators in my own discipline.
When I told them I wanted to spend more time programming, it was a trial by fire, but the lessons I had already learned about troubleshooting and isolating reproducible test cases are just as relevant when you’re writing code. Sometimes I handed my simple apps over to our developers to demonstrate bugs in our APIs, sometimes they went back to customers to show them where they made a mistake.
Q. Several years ago I attended an Esri Leaflet talk you gave. Toward the end you shared some thoughtful points from your experience as a maintainer of Esri-Leaflet about creating documentation, usable examples, most importantly the “You’re part of the team“ mentality. Can you share some of your experience and philosophy on cultivating new coders?
Of course! The gist of it is that there are way too many a&*#hole open source maintainers out there making other folks feel small on purpose.
I had the luxury of working on open source at my day job, so it was easier for me to make a conscious decision to set aside time to be welcoming to new contributors, to try and lead by example and to be gracious and patient.
I learned so many crucial lessons from this:
Its not hard!
It pays dividends. When someone asks a question or fixes a typo and is treated with basic courtesy its really encouraging to them! Often it leads to them increasing the scope and frequency of their participation. I know this because I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
Being patient and kind != agreeing to do someone else’s work for them or allowing random people on the internet to hijack your project and take it in a direction of their own.
This isn’t just an open source thing. Its relevant to all online (and IRL) communities. I’ve been pleased to see The Spatial Community bloom over the last few years. Esri employees have definitely chipped in, but often customer colleagues have even more insight to share.
To put it another way, I’ve always made it a point to share my knowledge with others to pay forward a favor to my own mentors and because I know that it’s what keeps the virtuous cycle turning. I don’t know where it is now, but I read an article once that listed this as a key ingredient to being fulfilled in your career. I can certainly attest that it has worked for me!
I found out the other day that I’ve contributed to almost 100 different Esri open source projects. Some of those were typo fixes, other times I was dogfooding to explain to the core team whether their work made any sense to someone making a quick flyby.
I learned a ton maintaining Esri Leaflet, but over the last couple years after that project matured I had a lot of fun getting my feet wet with TypeScript maintaining a new project called ArcGIS REST JS.
The core library is ~10x smaller than Leaflet and its sole purpose is to make it easy to talk to ArcGIS Online and Enterprise from Node.js and the browser.
We’ve had customers use it to create Chrome Extensions, browser apps, Lambda Functions and a bunch of other cool stuff, but I was particularly gratified to see contributions come in from lots of different dev teams within Esri who previously rolled implementation after implementation of their own.
The library is downloaded ~1000 times a week and is used to make literally millions of requests to ArcGIS Online each month from ArcGIS Hub, https://developers.arcgis.com, Storymaps and other Esri offerings.
Q. You love OpenStreetMap! Hey, I love OpenStreetMap!! Tell us a cool OpenStreetMap story.
The single most gratifying experience of my professional career was working on the technical implementation to grant the OSM community access to Esri’s World Imagery service.
Other folks at Esri did the hard work of getting legal sign off with half a dozen commercial imagery providers and a lot of customers in our Community Maps program.
All I had to do was write ~100 lines of JSON and a blog post.
The impact really hit home when Tyler Radford shared the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap statistics with me a year later. IIRC, they now recommend ArcGIS World Imagery in ~half of their projects!
Q. One of the first things I remember about you was your love of bikes and your work at the Redlands BikeBBQ. What’s the Redlands bike scene like?
There are a lot more weekend warriors here than commuters, but its a bike friendly town with wide streets and lots of accessible trails. Years ago we opened up a volunteer DIY repair shop to share tools and teach folks how to maintain their bicycles. As far as community outreach/activism goes, it’s a lot more fun and effective than standing on a corner holding a sign. Besides the Redlands Classic, the other high holiday in town for cyclists is Strada Rossa . Its a fun, friendly mixed surface fundraiser for charity that has concluded with an afterparty in my backyard more than once. This year the course went up and over Seven Oaks Dam and It’s been really fun to see gravel get more and more popular over the last couple years.
Q. You’re moving on from Esri after 10 years, what’s your greatest memory of your time there and tell us about what’s next.
We already shared one tweet earlier, but folks can find the whole love letter here:
I’m only two days in at Showrunner (link: https://showrunner.io) but I’m already having a ton of fun and learning a lot working with a few dear old friends. It’s bittersweet to take a break from geo though. I’m happy to be staying in Redlands. It means I can still keep up with folks online and pedal to grab lunch with my old coworkers.
Q. Finally, what does “geohipster” mean to you?
The point (I hope anyway) is to poke fun at folks for wanting to be different for the sake of being different and simultaneously to preach that “geo” is bigger than ArcGIS.
Learning how to make computers do what you (and your boss) want them to do is hard enough without someone else telling you that the tools you’re using aren’t cool. Whether you can step through the raw source or not, there are plenty of opportunities for learning, being inclusive, and mentoring others.
If there are two suggestions I can pass along in the age of social media outrage, they would be:
Denise is an Aussie who lives in England in the historic town of Winchester. She joined OGC in 2012 and spends her time managing the Communication and Outreach program globally for the consortium. The program handles the planning and execution of marketing, communication and education to raise awareness and increase implementation of open geospatial and location standards by technology providers and users worldwide. Part of Denise’s role is to oversee OGC Alliance Partnerships including representation at the United Nations Global Geographic Information Management (UNGGIM) committee. She is a member of the Board of the Association for Geographic Information in the UK and the Global Advisory Board for the Location Based Marketing Association. Prior to her role with OGC, she worked for over 12 years with the Victorian Government (Australia) in areas of geospatial strategic policy, collaboration and innovation.
Denise was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith and Michael Terner.
Q: Tell us about how you came to work for OGC.
A: It’s a serendipitous story, like most of my career, to be honest. I had been back working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, Australia for just over a year after maternity leave from my second child. Apart from the huge challenge of the VicMap API project, one of the other activities I had been leading was to set up the first OGC Australia and New Zealand Forum. As anyone who tries to work from Australia with people in other parts of the world will know – this included a lot of late night calls. It was during one of these calls that I was chatting with the CEO of OGC and he asked me if I had seen that the position for Executive Director for Marketing and Communications was being advertised. I said yes, and simply asked how their search was going. The response I got was “actually I was wondering if you had considered applying?” I think it would be fair to say that my face somewhat resembled that of a guppy fish (jaw on the floor and no words coming out – was so grateful that I did not have video for that moment). In my daze I asked a few more questions, finished the call and wandered into the kitchen where I then asked my husband what he thought of the idea of moving to a different country for work? He said sure… so I applied and rest is history.
Q: You travel a lot. What’s the best and worst thing about this?
A: Most days I really think I have one of the best jobs you can have in our industry. I love meeting new people, seeing new places and in the 6 years of working in OGC I realised how much I love seeing and learning about the amazing things people use location data for and how that changes the world for the better in so many ways. I feel really privileged to be able to represent the OGC membership throughout the world and to be able to tell their stories and to share the benefits that open geospatial standards can achieve.
It may sound cliche but the worst thing about travel is the time it takes me away from my family at home. Though my kids would say that it is not all bad because mum brings back presents! My rule is that they only get presents if the travel has been to a country I have never been to before and I always look for something that has a cultural connection to where I have been. It does make for some funny stories though. My son when he first started school explained to his teacher that “mum was away on the space station.” He had been confused when I said I was going to the European Space Agency (Frascati, Italy).
Q: You’ve been living in the UK for six years, do you miss Australia?
A: Of course! I will be an Aussie till my last day, but I do love my new country and am pretty lucky to be able to enjoy both places. The coffee scene is slowly improving (Winchester Coffee Roasters has been a life saver – though I did laugh when I discovered the owner learnt how to make coffee in Sydney).
But things I miss most include:
Beaches where the sand stretches for miles
Flake & potato cakes from the fish and chip shop
Sydney rock oysters
Rust orange sunsets – the ones in the UK are more pink in color
The smell of lemon-scented gums after it rains
The sound of magpies carolling in the mornings.
Q: Where does spatialred come from? Is it the blue hair?!
A: Hmm, there are only 5 other people who were involved in the creation of that twitter handle and how it came about is now a bit of an urban legend 😉 All I can say is that it was during a conference in New Zealand. I did have red hair at the time, but no that is not what inspired it. However seems to have stuck over the years and to be fair I do wear red pretty often.
Q: While standards are undeniably important, they are also boring. Can you convince us that they are hip?
A: Oh I love this question! Because I honestly believe they are anything but boring. They are one of the most powerful tools for sharing information and knowledge that we have. They bring people together around common problems and give them a pathway to solving them. Standards cross boundaries and borders in ways that enable us the greatest global insights into our planet that we have ever been able to access. One of my current favorite examples of this is the Arctic SDI,where 8 nations are now sharing data across international borders using OGC’s open standards.
At the end of the day it will be the standards we all agree on and the data that will flow through them that will help the world’s leaders make better decisions.
Location standards in particular help us to share data for all kinds of purposes, like understanding climate change, managing city infrastructure, getting planes safely to their destination and so many other world-changing benefits.
In short standards are the infrastructure that enable us to enjoy access to the incredibly rich information resources the web now provides. You can have the best data in the world, but if you can’t share it with anyone then of what benefit is it? Open location standards are one of the most powerful tools for data sharing around and that is why I think they are hip!
Q: What’s your take on the organically emergent standards, like shapefile, or GeoJSON that did not come out of standards setting organizations? Are they better or worse than OGC standards?
A: The truth is that most of the OGC standards start life in some way outside of the formal standards creation process. New standards are driven by innovation. Yes, you did read that correctly – standards happen because of innovation, not after the innovation has happened as I think many believe sometimes. No set of standards that operate in the web exist without interaction with other standards. We need to all work together to ensure the ecosystem works and the data flows and is visualized where it needs to be. Innovation will always help to create new and better ways of doing things and that is why you get communities developing standards like GeoJSON – though remember this standard is now part of a formal standards body at IETF.
A standard that is created outside OGC is no better or worse than an OGC standard – the most important thing is that the standard meets the needs of the users. I think one of the best developments in OGC in the past 5 years has been the creation of the Community Standard process. This now allows standards that are developed outside of that formal process but are mature, stable and being regularly used to be proposed as an OGC standard and come into the organisation with minimal change.
Q: How, and why did KML (originally a de facto standard) become an OGC standard?
A: In some ways, KML was really our first community standard (though we didn’t have formal process for it in those days). It was before my time in OGC, but from what I understand there was a recognition in Google that the standard would enable more data to be made available in this format if it was an international open standard than to remain a proprietary format in Google. Perhaps a good question to pose to Ed Parsons ;-).
Q: Can you talk about the difference in the process involved in WFS 3.0 and the ‘old’ way of developing standards? Also, are the other WxS services being reviewed?
A: This is my new favorite topic and one that excitingly you will see a lot of progress on in the next twelve months. I have watched a lot of change in the way we make standards in OGC. Word docs have given way to GitHub, PDF has given way to HTML, the range of market domains in OGC have increased, and hackathons have been introduced to complement our technical meeting process. It is important to note that our web service standards are not going away any time soon, but with the innovation in use of APIs it is time we developed some new standards to help ensure we can keep sharing geospatial data. The way we have started to describe what is happening is the following analogy.
Picture a brick house with great sturdy foundations that has been improved and matured over a long time and is currently being very well lived in and serves much of the world’s geospatial data. This is our OGC web services house and inside is WMS, WFS, WPS, WCS, WMTS and OWS Common. But we now have new building materials and methods of creating a house so we need some new standards to help us continue to share our geospatial data in an innovating world. This new house will be called the OGC API. In this house you will find OGC API – Features (formerly known as WFS 3.0), OGC API – Common, OGC API – Maps, OGC API – Processes, OGC API – Tiles and so on. The idea is that both these two houses will continue to co-exist for a long while yet, they will draw from the same data lakes and we will be building bridges to help developers move from one house to the next. Hopefully without too much trouble.
There is a hackathon that will push the development and testing of new specs for a number of these new standards in June this year just prior to our Technical Meetings in Belgium. Keep an eye out for more details and how to get involved. These need industry-wide support, review and participation to make them a great new generation of OGC standards.
Q: Ok, big question: Is spatial special?
A: No and yes. Sorry, fence sitting answer I know. In the big wide world of data – it is just another data type. But it has some unique and important elements about it that mean if you handle spatial data incorrectly you will get really bad outcomes. So I think that there is still an important role for spatial professionals in helping ensure that we use spatial data the right way and ensure we support good evidence-based decisions.
Maybe the question isn’t whether spatial is special or not, but why there still seems to be so much of the world that does not harness the power of spatial data or understand what it can do. Perhaps it is more a question of whether we as a community of practice think we are too special and are yet to really reach outside of our community to the broader world of data users to ensure that the goodness that spatial data can bring is shared globally.
And for what it is worth, I like the words location and place over geospatial or spatial (maybe our language is part of the problem?).
Q: Among your work experience on LinkedIn you list ‘mother’, which is awesome! Can you talk about this a bit?
A: Oh man, do not get me talking about my kids or we will be here for pages more 😉…but you have touched on something that is increasingly becoming an important topic for me and that is diversity. Not just gender diversity, but diversity in all areas – age, culture, language, experience, skills. I am sure it would be unsurprising to many of the readers here when I say that I am commonly either the only or one of a few women in many work situations I find myself in (unless of course it is International Women’s Day). Whilst I will say it is improving, it does not seem to be fast enough.
This year I ran an International Women’s Day event in London titled Women in Geospatial. I invited 3 women who are midway through their working careers to talk about their experience in the geospatial industry and how they got there, but the speakers on the day that had the most impact for me were the 4 women on our early careers panel. Whilst saying that they loved working in the industry, they all still had stories of intimidating all-male interview panels, some but not enough female role models in senior leadership positions and comments on their university degrees not having enough of the practical skills that they need now for their current jobs.
Another pivotal event was during FOSS4G last year in Tanzania when Rebecca Firth (from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and I ran a Diversity in Geo session and had close to 40 people turn up at 4pm on the second day of the conference. This helped to realise just how important it is to be a good role model and that when you are in a visible international role such as mine that we have an obligation and responsibility to help drive and be part of the necessary change.
So yes, I list “mother” as a job and I am very proud to do so, as the balance between work and family is paramount for me. To be honest I have learned so much by having this role in life and it enables me to bring many diverse perspectives to what I do, particularly now that my kids have reached an age where they are explaining the latest tech to me! #DiversityInGeo#WomenInGeospatial
Lastly a shout out to the lovely ladies that have started the WomenInGeospatial network recently, which I highly recommend getting in touch with if you are looking to network with other women in the industry.
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: Hmm, I think (and I am sure my mum would laugh in agreement with this) I have always wanted to do something that would help change the world for the better. I definitely have been able to do a lot in my time both at DSE in Australia and now in OGC that has helped, but we have so much more that we can do and I am really excited to be part of the OGC journey and working with our new leadership. I definitely can’t say that I have totally completed this bucket list item yet, but I am on my way and guess we will need to wait another 25 years or so of my career before I will know if I really achieved it or not ;-).
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: I simply love what geospatial can do and I love evangelizing about it. It is such a good news story and really has the power to change the world for the better. Oh and I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip.
Tobin Bradley is an indoor enthusiast. His hobbies include staring at screens (computers), staring at screens (books), staring at screens (movies), and staring at screens (video games). He wrangles code at Mecklenburg County Government in North Carolina and occasionally writes about it on his blog.
Tobin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.
Q: Good gracious, you’ve been blogging over at Fuzzy Tolerance since 2005! When you started, did you ever think it would last over 14 years? What does that first post make you think of?
A: Something Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame said that stuck with me is the worst code he’d ever seen was the code he wrote six months ago, and that that was always the case. Looking at my first blog post from 14 years ago on Loading .NET User Controls at Run Time, complete with poorly formatted code from one of my 47 blog engine migrations, makes me contemplate the sturdiness of the window across from me and the elevation of this floor.
But it also makes me realize why I’ve never gone back and edited those old blog posts, even the ones that make me cringe. It’s me, or at least the part of me I choose to share. Fuzzy Tolerance started even earlier as (oh it pains me to write this) The Programming Consultant Newsletter, a PDF I’d share with our staff and other local GIS folks every month. I’m an introvert and slightly autistic, the kind of person you’d see at a conference pretending to be part of a wall while eyeing the exits. Writing has always been the way I can help people and express myself. So it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been doing it for so long, and in the event of a civilization-ending zombie apocalypse, I’d probably still write blog posts with spray cans on the sides of abandoned grain silos.
Plus it’s a good way to archive my aging brain. Recently somebody thanked me for a bit of complicated PostGIS-related SQL I shared that I had no recollection of whatsoever. I was pretty sure I was being confused with a smart person until I found the blog post.
Q: All right, let’s back up a little for our readers here. How did you get into GIS…or geospatial…or whatever we’re calling it these days?
I was always headed for something related to problem solving and technology. My parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 in my formative years, a 5KB of RAM powerhouse (if you had the Commodore 64, (a) congratulations and (b) I hate you). It marked the point in my life when I became an indoor enthusiast. The things I managed to do with BASIC are probably still illegal in most states.
Naturally I went to college expecting to become a programmer. Two classes later and I was disabused of that notion. I could do the work, but I didn’t enjoy it. This is a failing on my part; I have an awful time learning things if I don’t have an immediate practical application for them. I realized I didn’t like programming per se, I just liked solving complex and interesting problems. If I weren’t an indoor enthusiast with an aversion to dirt I’d be perfectly happy being an auto mechanic.
During that existential crisis I happened to take Geography 101 as an elective with an amazing professor, Dr. Tyrel Moore. I went in thinking I’d memorize the state capitals, which was what I thought geography was at the time. Boy was I wrong. I was fascinated by the breadth and scope of the subject matter, but I’ve often thought if my first geography professor wasn’t an amazing teacher, I could have gone in an entirely different direction. Thanks, Dr. Moore.
I had no idea GIS was a thing when I became a geography major. With my programming background, it was a natural fit, and the rest is a succession of lucky breaks and happy accidents. We still call it GIS in Mecklenburg County, but once Data Science becomes a hackneyed term nobody uses anymore, I’m sure local government will switch to it.
Q: Your second Fuzzy Tolerance post was on Open Source Software. Even though the first FOSS4G conference (under that moniker) was only a year away, that still seems awfully prescient to me, especially considering that you work in public sector IT. Did you have a crystal ball hidden somewhere? And did you feel like a lonely voice back then?
A: A nice thing about local government is the antiquated technology actively encourages one to experiment with other things. Combine that with my natural nerd inclinations and I was playing around with things like Linux and MySQL and PHP very early on. At that point I had a loose understanding of what open source was; my interest in open source software was born out of practical rather than idealistic considerations.
The big turning point for our GIS group was when we launched an important website using new internet mapping software from our proprietary GIS vendor with much public fanfare, only to have it explode in a furious ball of nothing. We were battling “server unavailable” messages around the clock. We threw more hardware at it. It crashed faster. We brought the vendor in, who gave us a very expensive shrug. It was black-box proprietary software, so we couldn’t fix it. We couldn’t even tell what was wrong.
Fortunately that wasn’t one of my apps, but I had some apps coming down the pipe, and there was no way I was building them around that software. Some people looked cool and important with a pager strapped to their waist; I was not one of those people.
So I tried UMN’s MapServer, not overly optimistic about it because I thought web mapping was too niche for open source software. MapServer was better than our proprietary product in every imaginable way. It was faster. It was stable. It scaled better. And from a programming perspective it was much easier to work with. I released a couple of apps using it, and we had zero problems. It was…awesome.
That opened our eyes. We’re still a mixed proprietary and open source shop, but it’s exceedingly rare that we create something that doesn’t use open source software, and many of our projects are built entirely with open source software. We also release a lot of our software under an open source license. While I love the ethos and spirit of open source software, our use of open source is still entirely for practical reasons. For many problems, it’s the best tool for the job.
Personally, I’ve been rocking Linux at home (currently Manjaro KDE) exclusively for 15+ years. The open source community and ethos feels like home to me.
Q: You’ve been working for Mecklenburg County for a long time. Is there anything special about this organization that keeps you interested and invested?
A: Oh, not really. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to work, but it has the perks and pitfalls of most local governments. If our GIS group can be said to have accomplishments, I don’t think they’re accomplishments other local governments couldn’t achieve.
I’ve been very lucky in two ways. First, I’ve managed to have great bosses. One bad boss and I would have fallen back on my rock guitar god/professional video gamer career. Second, our GIS group does work with all of our government agencies, making for a wide variety of interesting and ever-changing problems to solve. Even after 20+ years (!), I still look forward to coming to work.
Q: I think I first caught on to your blog around when you started writing about customizing Google Maps, which inspired me to do the same for the organization I was supporting. Back then, they were one of the few choices for a slippy map API, but now there’s probably a dozen, depending on how you count. How do you keep up with technology changes, and how do you decide what to recommend/implement at work?
A: Without the constant technology changes, I’d have left GIS at some point. It’s the constant learning that makes this job so interesting.
At the start of every month I write out the things I want to learn more about. It’s my job to investigate these things, but in all honestly I’d do it even if it wasn’t, and I think it’s something everybody should do. It’s very easy to turn on autopilot and keep doing the same thing the same way over and over, but if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing, and if you aren’t growing, you’re shrinking. Literally. You’ll shrink.
I try not to steer the ship by recommending or advocating a particular technology direction unless I’m directly asked or I see an iceberg ahead. I tried that early in my career with limited success. I’ve found it’s much more effective to drop guideposts and let people come to them on their own. When people notice my apps are always up, or that an app does a particular thing they’ve been struggling with, they move in that direction naturally. Otherwise it’s whip-cracking and cat-herding, and I have no talent for those things.
Q: You’ve got a lot of code on Github, like your Bootstrap and Leaflet template. Does your organization actively support you open sourcing your apps, or do you just ask for forgiveness later?
A: Ug, that’s an old one. I should probably redirect that repo to Bryan McBride’s Bootleaf, which is much better. Mine was first (ha!), but as with most things, if Bryan McBride and I both did it, you should go with Bryan’s version.
I wouldn’t say my organization actively supports open sourcing apps (I don’t know of anybody else in the organization that has), but it isn’t opposed to the idea. In the early days it was something I did and waited patiently to see if I was going to be flogged, but these days even crusty old mainframe programmers know what GitHub is. Most people I talk to don’t share their code because they think it’s terrible, which is true. What they don’t understand is everybody’s code is terrible. No matter how terrible your code is, there are people it can help, and there are people that will help you make your code better.
My county has a park locator app. So do all 100 other counties in North Carolina. So does every county in the United States, and probably every local government around the world. The wasted effort and money in government because we aren’t sharing code with each other should be an outrage. I’m not big into leadership by fiat, but making all publicly funded code open source is a law I would wholeheartedly support.
You’ve also open sourced your current GeoPortal, which when I use it, strikes me as the “anti-portal”. This app is so simple, I can use it and browse it even though I live over 1,000 miles away. I have to believe there will be other local governments using this somewhere. Are you aware of any?
A: GeoPortal is a fun project. It’s one we initiated within our group, which is different — most of our projects are initiated by our customers, aka other county agencies. That gives us leeway in terms of design and functionality that we often don’t have on our projects (read: when you see one of our apps with 37 buttons, know that a battle was lost). It’s also very fun modern tech: vector tiles, reactive UI components, progressive web app, etc. It’s good to have one project your group completely owns that can be used to try new things and blaze trails for future apps.
I know places that are using our projects like GeoPortal and the Quality of Life project and our Dirt Simple PostGIS HTTP API, and if they want to give us a hat tip for that, that’s very nice. I don’t like to call them out myself though. Taking something we wrote like GeoPortal and customizing it for their own jurisdiction is a herculean effort (I’ve seen my code), and I don’t want a smidgen of credit redirected from somebody that worked really hard on their app to us. But I’ll say this to others that may be functionally autistic/dead inside like myself: knowing that something you shared is helping other people will touch and affect you in ways you won’t expect. When people thank me for a project I’ve shared, I hide in my office for an hour.
Speaking of hat tips, GeoPortal needs to give a giant one to Brian Timoney. His blog posts on how people actually interact with web sites was a real eye opener, and it got me started on a path of learning more about UI and UX, to the point where the map on GeoPortal is now an optional click (gasp!). For my money, good design is still the most glaring problem in government websites today, and unfortunately it’s an area governments rarely invest in.
Q: Judging by your Twitter bio picture, you’re both a musician and a dad, like me. I personally find that lessons I learn in those two roles can be applied in GIS, in IT, and in public sector work. Have you found the same thing, and if so, are some experiences more influential than others?
A: To call me a musician is stretching the term a bit. 23andme has officially confirmed the dad part though.
My first lesson as a father was that I owe my parents an apology. Beyond that, it’s hard to pick out individual things, as I ama fundamentally different person since my son was born. I have a lot more patience. I understand that people have their own motivations and histories, and if I want to connect with and motivate people I need to understand those things and not judge them. A number of children’s cartoons no longer piss me off. It’s a really strange experience going from not understanding people at all to having a wife and son that I’d step in front of a bus for without a second thought, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Being a musician, aside from the expense of new gear and the noise complaints, is a total quality of life improvement. It builds focus, tenacity, patience, confidence, and peace of mind, all of which translate to your life in positive ways. I did not pick up the guitar at 16 for any of those reasons. I picked it up because I thought it would help me woo women in ways that my personality and stick-like figure did not. Turns out an autistic stick-figure kid carrying a guitar around everywhere is mostly just weird.
Q: Tube amps or solid state? Seriously.
A: If your gear inspires you to play and create music, it’s the right gear. If it doesn’t inspire you to play and create music, it’s the wrong gear. If a Squier Strat plugged in to a Peavey Bandit is what inspires you, make your music and tell all of the gear snobs to stuff it.
But the correct answer is tube amps.
Q: OK, the evidence is building. But I’m starting to feel like I don’t have to ask EVERY interviewee if they’re a geohipster. Would you be OK if I skipped it this time?
A: I have never owned a non-functional scarf, which I think rules out the hipster part. I have also never intentionally achieved “cool”, though after many years of work I have “non-threatening” down pat. It mostly involves smiling a lot without showing teeth. I do own a tie that plays Christmas carols. Do with that what you will.
Q: Any words of wisdom or parting shots for our readers?
A: For my fellow local government tribe, I try to encourage people to be present and thoughtful about everything they do. The most common answer to why a local government does something the way it does is because that’s the way it did it yesterday. This is always a bad answer.
But for everybody, my biggest wish is that people would realize how amazing they are, how important they are to other people in ways they don’t understand, how smart they are and the ways they can and do contribute. Imposter syndrome isn’t a new thing, but it seems to hit the tech field pretty hard. The next time your inner voice is giving you an itemized list of your failures, ask yourself if that inner voice was an actual person, how long would you listen to it before you punched it in the mouth. If the answer is not very long, feel free to ignore that voice and go do awesome things with whatever time you have on this planet. And share some code along the way.
Glenn is a Geographer (B.Sc Geog 93’) and has worked in the GIS industry since 1990 when he first worked as an intern on CAD & GIS mapping for the natural gas pipeline in Victoria, BC. Since then he has been a GIS analyst for both public and private sectors and is known mostly as the founder of GISuser.com, a popular GIS industry news outlet. Most recently, Glenn was the marketing manager (contractor) for GEO Jobe, an Esri business partner, while just this month Glenn has now turned to focus full time on his Tech marketing venture, gletham Communications (www.gletham.com) to focus on evangelism and marketing for GIS companies and geotech startups. Oh… Glenn also has become known for conducting video interviews in his car through the GeoGeeksinCars video series (http://bit.ly/geogeeksincars1). He’s been on Twitter for 12 years as @gletham and spends his time in Victoria, BC, Canada and also in Fort Collins, Colorado (that’s a long story).
Q: Everyone knows Glenn Letham The GIS User. But there is much more to what you do than GISUser.com, correct? Tell us about your other endeavors.
A: GISuser has been a fantastic journey for me and it has been really fun and interesting to manage for the past 15 years. About 3 years ago I got an itch to do more and join up with a “real GIS company” again so that was when I hooked up with GEO Jobe and took up a role in marketing and content creation for them. Recently that came to an end and that has enabled me to now focus on growing my consulting business, gletham Communications (gletham.com) to provide technical marketing, strategy, and communication services specifically for the GIS/Geotech industry. Oh, and I’m also going to double-down and start re-focusing on GISuser and our GIS Career resource, geojobs.biz, along with my business associate Allen Cheves — he’s also the founder and publisher of American Surveyor Magazine and the very awesome LiDAR Magazine – if LiDAR is of interest you gotta check it out! I still maintain and manage the online mobile tech news sites that I founded back in 2004, LBSzone.com & SymbianOne.com. I really enjoy DevMeetups and similar geeky events and have a real itch to organize one again sometime, perhaps an Ignite or DevMeet that coincides with a conference (In the past I’ve helped plan a few of them, including a GeoDevMeetup in Fort Collins with about 200 people – they were awesome!)
Q: What is the secret to a successful social media presence? A narrow, specialized, highly technical content, or broad content including technical content but also cultural commentary and the occasional political jab?
A: Social media really is a different creature for everyone I think. By that I mean, there really is no right or wrong way to do it and “success” is pretty subjective. I’ve definitely been a long time, early adopter of most of the original, big platforms but I’ve also had periodic moments of burn-out which I see happening to many others as well. I guess I’ve been somewhat successful at building a community of followers, the biggest challenge likely has been combining personal and business content into the mix. That can be a real challenge and can also be risky, causing followers to bail out and resort to blocking. I’ve always been a bit of an open book, posting some personal commentary and lots of photos and video. This means that my network doesn’t just view me as a GeoGeek or marketing guy, many also view me as a dog lover, baseball fan, and guy who appears to travel quite a bit, strangely living in Victoria or Fort Collins, CO! For me, this has been useful in building credibility and enabling people to get to know me as if we’ve met IRL. I’m lucky in that I have a fantastic network in the GIS and mobile tech community. This means that I receive lots of great tips, tricks, advanced news announcements and sneak peeks into the future. I think this has really helped to provide me with plenty of great technical content to share over the years. My goal is simply to try and build a reputation as someone who is open, honest, trustworthy, funny, and caring. I’ll admit that I have periodic Twitter “rants” where I’ll slip up and drop a political topic, but you have to admit, it’s tough at times these days to have complete restraint but I’m trying to chill with that! I’m working on trying to be more careful about those topics though as it really doesn’t do any good and simply contributes to division and conflict. I find LinkedIn to be increasingly useful and interesting (although the engineers messing with the platform tend to drive me crazy!) but that’s also where I am 100% business and try to focus solely on technology and business. If I had to describe my “success” I’d have to say it’s come from connecting with awesome people to build a vibrant network, trying to engage and assist/answer questions when possible, and just being myself. If your readers would like to connect with me they can find me on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/glethamComm/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/glethamcomm/)
Q: GeoGeeks in Cars. Other than the obvious Seinfeld influence, can you tell us what inspired you to start this?
A: I’ve always enjoyed doing the “selfie video” thing, I believe the first time I tried that was in 2010 when I took a summer drive in my Mustang convertible on a little trip to the Apple store in Boulder, CO (https://youtu.be/Ude0D3uiShs). Fast-forward a few years and I decided that I wanted a more fun, visual way to interview GeoGeeks. I’ve been a tech journalist since 1999 but honestly, doing interviews has never really been my favorite thing to do in that role so I felt that mixing things up with video would be a great idea (note, one of my favorite episodes to date was this one with the entire Esri startup program team https://youtu.be/aGAZGxTQXZw). Apparently, it worked quite well as I frequently have geeks come up to me at events and say “hey, you do those geek in cars videos!” I believe my first true GeoGeeksincars episode was in Victoria, BC with my friend Karl Swannie, CEO at Echosec. The drive was fun, although a bit bumpy but I really found that both of us were at ease and just having a friendly, light conversation. We actually did go for coffee and it clicked to me that this could be something fun that people would enjoy. Overall, I’ve found it to be a fun way to discuss a topic, particularly as I’m not really interested in creating a podcast. Initially, I started out filming these with a smartphone but I’ve since updated the technology and the quality and continued to get better I think. The next thing I’d like to add is a second or third camera angle so people can see the scenery. Most recently, I rolled a few at DevSummit in Palm Springs, including this solo drive where I chatted about my new adventure (https://youtu.be/RoCILVzqz2Y)
Q: You were just at the Esri Developer Summit. Tell us something you learned there that you don’t think you would have heard about otherwise.
A: I think, overall, I was most struck by how the products are [finally] coming into alignment and offering a similar experience for the user. I’m far from an ArcGIS Pro “guru”, however, curiosity always does get the best of me so I really do like to dabble, test, and try to break new technologies as they come out. I’m also fortunate in that I’ve had access to the software courtesy of Esri and some of the companies I’ve worked for — Esri also does make available software for non-commercial use to developers as well, so this is a great way to access the tools. But back to where I started, I was impressed with what’s coming from the Story Map technology, Web AppBuilder and Survey123. Esri has evolved these solutions using a new architecture and is providing the same, familiar experience which is also very simple to use and can also be very useful to those of us (like me) who don’t code. I really like what I’ve seen recently and I think the users will as well. As an example, I chatted with a Survey123 staffer at the show and he walked me through creating a form and publishing out as a mobile app and feature service. The scenario was a tree inspection app and it took us about 10 minutes in total to create — I was pretty impressed!
Q: More importantly, how did you do in the dodgeball tournament?
A: I’ll be honest, I sat front row and enjoyed a couple of IPAs while the event took place. It really is a blast to watch and is a great team-building activity. Last year I joined a team that was short a player and sadly we were knocked out immediately so my dodgeball career was very short-lived!
Q: When you met Kenneth Field, did he have any cheese on him?
A: No such luck there but that would have been totally awesome! We do know that he likes his cheese and the cheese board map and others that he’s created are truly awesome!! See his blog on creating the cheese board map — our meetup in Palm Springs was pretty cool though. Ken was doing a lightning talk in the DevMeet “Speed Geeking” event so I got Ken for 5 minutes all to myself. His quick talk was very impressive and entertaining — and I did indeed learn a ton about cartography, a real treat! Funny thing, he gave me a signed copy of the amazing “Cartography.” book and the following day he mentioned he was disappointed I didn’t connect with him to roll a geogeeksincars drive. That was my bad as I assumed he was so busy, then he told me he was really looking forward to doing one. Talk about a missed opportunity.
Q: Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: Haha, I know that many of your followers will groan a bit but yup, I’m a bit old-school still and likely best described as being on team Shapefile — oh, and I do have some of the highly sought after “I heart SHP” buttons!
Q: Team ArcGIS or Team QGIS?
A: Well, I have a couple of ArcGIS Online accounts and am still a big fan of Story Map technology and web app builder so its team ArcGIS.
Q: Team Vancouver or Team Fort Collins (and which has better beer)?
A: Bazinga!! Actually, technically it’s Victoria (the BC Capital on Vancouver Island) and that’s a tough call. FOCO is my home-away-from-home for now, however, it may become home in the near future. The sunshine in Fort Collins is totally awesome but overall, the weather and scenery is likely better in Victoria (particularly in summer) and I definitely am at home close to the ocean — I still get nosebleeds when I hit Colorado even after all these years! On the upside though, the people in Colorado are really amazing and the tech scene kicks butt too. As for the beer, Fort Collins has sooo many options and many breweries, plus you can use the patios all year round (except for when a blizzard blows in for a day). The quality and selection of brews in FOCO is better for sure, however, Victoria is up there and you’d be surprised to know that the cost of craft beer in Victoria is much less than in the US and best of all, the Canadian pint is a whopping “proper” 20 ounces — a huge win!
Q: Not too many people know that you were an early GeoHipster advisor. The Poll that launched the site in 2013 was your idea. Having said that, do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: That’s funny and I had forgotten about that. I recall that and was impressed by how you ran with the idea — I think at that time I was simply too saddled with work and life, in general, to take on something else. Am I a hipster? Hmmm, I suppose I am (maybe Hipster-Lite). I do dabble with a number of open source solutions and am a huge proponent of open data. I’m a meetup, devmeet, hackathon junkie and attend whenever I can make it happen so these attributes might help group me in with the crowd. Oh, and I do ride my bike frequently (when the rainy season ends) and I sport a beard 3 months of the year! Interesting side-note, I was instrumental in organizing the first Ignite Spatial events and Esri DevMeetup which took place in Fort Collins, CO – pretty hip eh?
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: Hmmm, well, if you blend personal and professional personas on social media try to stay away from politics, guns, and map projection discussions… you’ll likely get into a war of words! Build a focused online network of connections because you never know when you’ll need them. While doing this, be sure to listen, contribute and help others — that will go a long way. Finally, if you share news/PR with journalists, please don’t do it with a PDF!! Shameless self-promo, and if you need some tips, advice, or assistance, feel free to hit me up @gletham
Britta Ricker, PhD (@bricker) is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University in the Copernicus institute for Sustainable Development. Her research interests focus on accessible spatial technologies, particularly open data and the use of mobile devices. Dr. Ricker co-founded the Masters in Geospatial Technologies at the University Washington Tacoma. She has also provided GIS and cartographic services for the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, MapQuest, and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
Dr. Ricker was interviewed for GeoHipster by Natasha Pirani.
Q: Hey Britta (Dr. Ricker?)! Tell me about your start and your education/career path in GIS, and as an academic. Did you always aspire to be a professor?
A: No, I did not always aspire to be a professor. Not at all. I wanted to have a career in International Development. I grew up in rural western Maryland and I played outside a lot. I liked to follow the water flow downhill, and I would daydream about what was over the next hill. My dad was a preacher and my mother was a high school librarian, they were always helping others and I wanted to do that too. My favorite aunt worked for the United Nations and had/has a glamourous international life in NYC. I always wanted to be her! I thought I would study international politics to get there.
I quickly found that the Geography Department at my university (Frostburg State University) at that time (2002-2005) was particularly strong and the professors were really inspiring. I did not want anything to do with GIS and programming, and I avoided it until one day, Dr. Fritz Kessler, a fantastic cartography professor sat me down, and asked me directly “What are your career goals?” I told him, and he explained to me how cartography and GIS can be used for international development. I changed my major the next day.
There have been so many conferences, events, social media, whatever, where people (men) ask, how can we get more women in the field? Take the Fritz Kessler approach. Don’t tell women or anyone how you think of GIS or how they should think of GIS; bring GIS into their value system, into their frame of reference, their interest. It is a fun challenge.
Q: Have you experienced particular triumphs or challenges as a woman in GIS, academia, and hipsterhood?
Q: You relocated last year to the Netherlands! How has the transition been? Do you ride your bike everywhere?
A: I do love it here. I am still getting used to it. The Dutch labor law and academic expectations don’t always match, which is fun to learn and navigate. Work/life balance is so important, and in the Netherlands it is the law. I was an exchange student to the Netherlands in high school which is a big reason I am here now. I do really miss the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, the region I had lived for the past 8 years. I like riding my bike everywhere, although I am still learning the “rules of the road” and the nuanced social etiquette of urban biking in the Netherlands. I joke and say my bike is my car. It is John Deere tractor green with a big basket on the front to carry my groceries and makes me smile everytime I see it. I am proud hearing my daughter learn Dutch so quickly, she regularly corrects my pronunciation. I am struggling with Dutch, especially since everyone speaks English so well. Mappy Dutch Fun Fact, a bell tower in Amersfoort is 0,0 for the Dutch datum. There is an awesome multimedia, projection map exhibit about the exact place. Forget Amsterdam, visit Amersfoort!
Q: Our earlier conversations have meandered into topics related to critical and feminist cartography and data visualization. What do those concepts mean to you, and how do they intersect with your research interests and your current work?
A: Wow, okay, this is a big question. Critical and feminist cartography and data visualization are two different fields that so obviously overlap but are incredibly difficult to publish together in academic peer reviewed journal articles. Feminism is really a lightning rod term, particularly in Europe I am noticing. Those who react especially negatively to it, I ask them to define feminism and they often say something like women before men. That is not feminism, feminism is about equality, that is it.
Theories are hard to apply, and my experience is that theorists don’t like it when you try, so it is sometimes better to decouple the two in academic writing at least. Feminist cartography is deeply rooted in my epistemology, my way of knowing, and I like to think it informs all that I do professionally. The research I pay attention to and further is informed by my understandings of feminist cartography and GIS and how I hope it can be extended. I have been enjoying working with Meghan Kelly in this type of research and thinking. In terms of research, feminist cartography acknowledges that there are multiple ways of knowing, seeing, and understanding space. Traditional cartography is not the only way. (But I also don’t think we should villainize cartography!) My way of knowing is not the only form of feminist cartography, or feminist ways of knowing. This is what makes incorporating feminist practice into cartography so very difficult; well, one of the things.
I am interested in developing research questions, to measure and evaluate learning outcomes based on specific communication goals, testing different map interfaces. I aim to investigate the use of new forms of technology such as 360 cameras and new, exciting interfaces that are becoming more widely accessible, such as virtual reality and comparing them with traditional 2D maps. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different visualization methods, in terms of what is learned from them — are they simply fun, or are they useful to communicating something specific like the spatial distribution of a phenomenon necessary for resource allocation or other decision making? The research questions are endless, really. Results will change as the technology evolves and the social uptake thereof evolve. I don’t really know how to do this, I could use that wayfinding app that you ask for below…I regularly read and re-read the work of Agnieszka Leszczynski, Nadine Schuurman, Sarah Elwood, Renee Sieber, and each time I read their papers, I get different morsels of inspiration and understand them differently.
Q: You’ve said that you “aim to illuminate techniques to make visualization tools associated with GIS more accessible to diverse audiences.” Tell me more about these techniques and some overlooked or invisible challenges of GIS accessibility.
A: Two come to mind: First, the most obvious invisible challenge is missing data. Missing data is also not sexy because it can’t be mapped, easily. Feminist geography talks a lot about missing data; missing historical records don’t mean that women did not make significant contributions, it just means those contributions were not documented. That holds true today. We make a lot of assumptions, and map things based on social media platforms dominated by specific demographic groups. We have interpolation methods for physical geography — could similar interpolation methods be generated for social geography too?
Second, right now, arguably we all have access to the tools required to make maps in our back pockets. It is just not always obvious how to make them, or why we should make them. Maybe more people would be interested in using another accessible form of technology if it were more clear how they could be useful for communication purposes.
Q: You’ve also explored the potential of drones to be used in participatory action research and citizen science, which sounds super cool. What did you find?
A: Drones are a great example of how increasingly accessible technologies can be used for good, but in ways that are not immediately obvious. Let’s say you take an aerial image of your property every day for one year. Suddenly, the foundation of your house is being eroded away by a new stream that has formed on your property after a heavy rain. You could use a drone to fly during a non-flood event and a flood event to show the difference. If you did this at regular intervals, patterns may emerge. This could be used for legal purposes, or it could be used to learn about your property, or to communicate to a neighbor that they caused this problem because when you looked upstream, you might find land use changes on their property caused flooding in your yard…and that sparks privacy concerns.
I found that the use of drones raises a lot of red flags from a number of different directions. First, legal constraints. Drones are so new — the laws about flying change all the time, and vary between places. Doing research and writing and teaching take a lot of time and energy and to add to that, navigating the legal system was too much. Additionally, I was trying to show how drones could be used for participatory mapping. I got a lot of pushback saying that drones are evil surveillance war machines, and can’t be used for good. GPS was funded, developed and launched by the military, and now we use it to find the closest restaurant or hospital — is that evil?
I am inspired and encouraged by the success of Laura Grace Chipley’s work with the use of participatory use of drones with the Appalachian Mountaintop Patrol (http://lauragracechipley.com/amp). I hope to prove how drones can be used for counter-mapping and advocacy efforts rather than for hegemonic purposes they are known for.
I once had a great conversation with a communications professor about how a simple camera angle pivot on a drone can completely shift the mood of that image. When the camera angle of nadir is 90 degrees – straight down, the aerial photo looks militaristic and utilitarian, whereas with an aerial camera at an angle of 50-60 degrees, it more likely evoke an emotional response of wonderment, beauty and splendor. This technique is used in cinematography. An aerial video to convey the landscape of the environment in which a story takes place is called a phantom ride.
Q: Do you identify as a geohipster? A geosister? Why or why not — and should it even be a binary distinction?
A: You know, I had a traditional GIS analyst job out of undergrad which makes me identify with #GISTribe (also I have been using ArcGIS Pro a lot lately) and then taught myself tools that might be considered part of the geohipster toolbelt. I think the binary is not helpful. A tool or solution should be made to answer a specific question or to meet a communication goal — how it is made is important in terms of meeting the goal, not to adhere to a certain tribe’s constraints. Solutions are often based on what is in the toolbelt.
Q: What’s your favourite mom joke?
A: What does a baby computer call her father? Answer: Data
From the movie HER, such a great movie.
Q: Do you have a favourite map?
A: Wow, this is hard, I do love historic maps. I also really love the hand-painted watercolor maps by @turnofthecenturies (on instagram) wooden laser cut maps. I particularly like the 3D bathymetry maps (http://www.3dwoodmaps.com/). Of course, I love NYTimes maps.
Q: Is there, like, an open source GPS tracker and wayfinding app for lost students to position themselves in their research and find an ideal route through school? Or to find a job afterwards? Or do you have any words of wisdom to share with them (me)?
A: Relax and enjoy the process. I continually reflect on feeling this way during my masters degree, particularly when working with masters students I am mentoring. I was really uncomfortable with this feeling of uncertainty about how to navigate through a masters degree, and then the PhD thereafter. There is no one way to make a map, there is no one way to complete a research project. You just have to document the process and justify your decisions. No one can do it for you, you just have to trust your academic advisors, and if you don’t trust them, trust your gut and get a new advisor. During your masters degree, you learn the research process, which is always messy and though the end is not always in sight, you just have to keep moving forward. A masters degree is like a 10k race while a PhD is a marathon in mountainous terrain.
Q: Any other thoughts to share with the rest of the hipster- and sisterhood?
A: More of a note to self: Be careful to not villainize men. Do not mimic them either. Let’s just all try to be confident without being dicks. What do our maps communicate? Think about who the data is representing, and who is missing.
Michael Gurley came to the Geo-field accidentally, burned brightly across the early GIS skies, relished being a small fish in a small pond, fought hard to keep the mystic arts secret from the unwashed masses, was an unapologetic ESRIalite, and then experienced a conversion to the “GIS is just a tool” doctrine, and now looks at any single-solution disciple with disdain…or at least a heavy dose of skepticism.
Michael’s only dedicated online presence is an embarrassingly sporadic blog…about climbing, and other pedestrian adventures.
A: Completely by mistake. Two years of pursuing Civil Engineering was abandoned, in a fit of frustration…while suffering through Differential Equations with Linear Algebra (DiffEQ for short), for the more “squishy” liberal arts degree in Geography. It appealed to my love of history, culture, and…of course, maps. I figured I would end up teaching. But, in my senior year at University of New Hampshire, I joined my housemates (all geography/geology students) in an on-campus work-study opportunity. We were all using workstation (I believe it was 5.0) ArcInfo to digitize South American deforestation. I blame two years of squinting at black and white LandSAT photos through a digitizing puck crosshair for my currently degraded eyesight.
Q: You and I worked together over 20 years ago. Do you miss GIS in the 1990s? ArcView, shapefiles, coverages…
A: 20 years ago? Those were good times. Yes…and no. I don’t necessarily miss the technology. I actually loathed ArcView when it first appeared on the scene. And…ArcCAD? PC ArcInfo? Ugh! What I do miss was the “newness” of the field at that time. We were kinda rockstars….at least in our own nerdy minds.
Q: Do you miss New Jersey?
A: Again…yes and no. I don’t miss the Garden State as much as I miss friends and family that still reside there. When I moved to Oregon in 2011, my new boss nicknamed me “Jersey.” After a while, I stopped fighting it, and just embraced the moniker.
Q: Your name is on the 1999 Digital Parcel Mapping Handbook published by URISA and the NJ State Mapping Advisory Committee. Are you still involved with digital parcel mapping? Has the methodology changed in the last 20 years?
A: That thing is still around?!?!? Maybe that’s a sign that parcel mapping HASN’T changed as much as I would have thought. I’m not involved in parcel mapping anymore. I did work for a while at Oregon Department of Revenue, in their Property Tax Mapping section. Similar work, but a lot more concerned with utilizing property survey source data to construct the tax parcels. I would hazard a guess that the basic premise is still the same, just a lot more snazzy tools available to the practitioner.
Q: Tell us about your current job. What do you do at work?
A: Five months ago I accepted a position with Oregon Department of Transportation. For the first time in over 20 years, I am doing something that is not directly connected to GIS. I am a “hybrid” Project Manager and System Analyst with Transportation Application Development (TAD). Our particular team supports the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) business within ODOT. It was a huge leap for me to leave my GIS comfort zone, but I believe it was time for me to grow, expand, and be challenged.
Q: I know you use QGIS. Exclusively or not? What other tools do you use on a daily basis?
A: Now that I don’t have access to ArcGIS at work…yes, I’m striving to learn the ins-and-outs of QGIS. It’s purely for personal use. I have a pretty extensive collection of local hiking trail data that I’ve collected with GPS, and am undertaking to port that data from the personal geodatabase that it’s stored in to something more useable with QGIS.
Q: How does QGIS fit in within the mission of your organization?
A: Within ODOT? It doesn’t. ODOT’s GIS shop falls squarely in the Esri camp.
Q: Where do you stand in the data formats wars? Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: I always disliked shapefiles. They never felt “stable” or precise enough for my tastes. My desire for data integrity was more satisfied by the geodatabase…ESPECIALLY when it came to enforcing topology rules. As a QGIS novice, I felt like I was having to take a step back, and settle for shapefiles. So, when I “discovered” the geopackage option, I was an immediate convert. Time will tell if I actually chose the “BetaMax” (or not) of GIS data formats.
Q: You commute on an antique store bike. This is super hip. Geared or fixie? Tell us all about that.
A: I would dispute the antique label. My current bike (a 1996 Univega Rover 304) is neither “belonging to ancient times” nor is it “of high value because of its considerable age.” I picked it up for $35. Because of its LACK of monetary value, I am much less fearful of it getting stolen and I’m much less hesitant to experiment with performing repairs on it myself. It’s geared. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. I don’t even KNOW what a fixie is. Single speed? That doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe I should look into it someday.
Q: Do you have any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Portland is where all the hipsters reside. I don’t have the time to compete with that scene. Salem has some occasional glimmers of hipster, but my theory is that Salemites maintain a perverse sense of pride in not buying into the pressure of competing with the Portland scene. Salem’s response to “Keep Portland Weird” is “Keep Salem Lame”. Not to get overly philosophical about it, but I think if you are TRYING to be a hipster…you’re doomed to failure. Reminds me of the late 80s when a lot of my brother’s friends thought “being punk” consisted solely of spiking their hair and wearing a lot of studded leather. Hipster or punk. It’s an individual state of mind, not a fashion statement. Here ends the lesson.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: 2009 through 2012 was a particularly turbulent time in my life. Moving cross-country away from friends, family (especially my kids) was the hardest decision I ever had to make. The only thing that kept me sane and grounded was getting out into the wilderness to hike, backpack…and eventually climb. Check out my sporadic personal blog for an essay regarding “Why I Climb” (https://mikestracks.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/why-i-climb/) if you are so inclined (no pun intended). Coincidentally, the essay had its genesis in an innocent comment by this blog’s very own founder (thanks AE). My life has much less personal drama now, but the love of the outdoors remains. It is still a healing and rejuvenating activity for me. I’ve seen and done things that I previously thought weren’t possible for “normal people” like me. Besides this new-found adventurous side of me, I can totally “geek-out” with a group of friends playing tabletop board games or role-playing games. I have a lazy indulgent side also. On a warm, dry, summer Oregon day, nothing beats sitting on a winery’s veranda, overlooking the vineyards, sharing a bottle (or two) of local wine with someone special.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: “The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends.” –Tom Brown, Jr.
Courtney is a product manager at the Canadian Digital Service. Before joining the public service, she worked at Esri building products to connect local governments and their communities using open data. She has a BA in Urban Systems and GIS from McGill University. She lives in Ottawa and is moderately active on Twitter. Courtney was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: Growing up I was enamoured with big cities (living in the suburbs where they’re just out of reach will do that) and was glued to the computer (see: suburbs). I took an elective geography class in high school because it had an urban geo unit, and that’s where I learned about GIS. We used ArcView 3. I remember creating shapefiles of the neighbouring plaza’s building footprints and mapping the GPS points of garbage. I loved the mix of art and science that GIS brought — the data collection, analysis, and communicating information in a clear and appealing way. It was a way I got to flex whatever creativity or eye for design I had while being rooted in science, which was typically more of my strong suit. I also got to be on the computer, so, bonus! My first GIS map is still kicking around in my dad’s basement somewhere. It’s not The Garbage Map, but it is definitely a garbage map.
I was amped to learn more in university and dive deeper into urban applications of GIS. I wanted to be a transportation planner but got wooed by the open government data movement that was taking off, and that set my course.
Q: You currently work for the Canadian Digital Service. What is the mission of the Service, and what do you personally do there?
A: The Canadian Digital Service uses digital skills and knowledge to make it easier for people to access and use government services. We partner with other federal departments and work to improve the services they provide Canadians, and while doing so we’re sharing with our colleagues a different way of working in government – a way that’s open, interdisciplinary, and puts the user first. We’re trying to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.
I’m a product manager, so I work on a delivery team of designers, researchers, and developers, and engage with partners across government to make sure the right thing gets built at the right time. It’s a lot of different hats.
A: Yeah! The team really is fantastic. I think it’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do, especially when we’re the new kids in town and we’re working with public servants that have been doing this hard work for years. We’re not sweeping into departments and shaking them up, but aiming to empower folks who have been moving to work in a more modern way all along. I feel incredibly supported as an individual working at CDS, but I don’t feel like it’s really about us in the end. I’d encourage anyone who wants to tackle some big issues for the greater good to apply–we’re looking for roles across the organisation and you don’t need to be Canadian.
Q: Prior to your current position you worked at Esri DC, where you focused on ArcGIS Open Data. Was that big / open geodata, or just data?
A: It was just data. ArcGIS Hub (née Open Data) supports both spatial and non-spatial data, though of course the majority of datasets people published were spatial — raster or vector. I think that’s mostly of a function of it being Esri but also that the majority of data out there has a spatial component.
Q: Is spatial still special?
A: I’m not sure spatial is inherently special, but local gov GIS teams are incredibly well equipped to spearhead a city’s open data strategy and open data services. They hold a ton of data, and we’ve seen more GIS folk use their data to tell stories and share information rather than simply sharing shapefiles — they’ve moved beyond reaching only the civic hacker or data journalist. Your average person on the street doesn’t care what a shapefile is. Lots of people just want to know if they’re buying a home in a safe area and to make sure their kid can walk to school without a high chance of getting run over. Having those kinds of geo-infomediaries that put insights beside data empowers more users to make decisions and insights of their own.
Over my four years at Esri we saw incredible information resources emerge from what started as simple open data sites. Some of Esri’s users went from being GIS analysts at their local government to being the city’s Chief Data Officer, others have developed partnerships with Waze, others are engaging with schools and showing students the value of open data. GIS shops can really open the door to greater public uses and applications of information beyond just sharing data.
Q: Tell us about life after Esri.
A: Life after Esri was tough at first. Leaving Esri was tough. It took a long time to feel comfortable and productive at my first long-term job out of university, which I imagine a lot of young women in tech can relate to. I had established relationships, a community of practice, and a reputation, and then I took a leap and moved to a new city to start a new job in a new field where I didn’t have any of that. So it was a bit of a lonely reset. The first few months were challenging and scary and uncomfortable, but I need to feel challenged and scared and uncomfortable in order to grow, and I don’t regret it. Plus my rent is cheaper.
I miss geography, GIS, and DC’s incredible geo community. Twitter provides me an endless stream of geo FOMO.
Q: What drove you to come work in the US? What drove you to return to Canada?
A: Both times were for jobs; I’m very lucky I could pick up and move like that. I attended the 2014 OpenStreetMap conference in DC and met people from Esri which led to the move south of the border. It was the best thing I could have done at the time and I didn’t think twice about it.
During my time in DC I was introduced to 18F and the United States Digital Service, and then gradually followed Canada’s growth into digital government — Code for Canada forming, the province of Ontario hiring a Chief Digital Officer and creating the Ontario Digital Service, and then the Canadian Digital Service being born. I wanted a closer look at how government works and it’s an exciting time to work in digital government in Canada. It’s also great to be back closer to my family and to have real winters again.
Q: PBR features regularly in your Instagram feed. Also bikes. Any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Ha! Damn, outed. In my defense, PBR is a fine dock beer and we recently got out of dock season here in Ontario. Back in DC my pal Max hosts an annual hipster triathlon: swim 20 laps of a public pool, run around a track for a while, then bike to a brewery wearing funny clothes. I loved it. Other than that, I don’t think about what it means to be a hipster or what hipster attributes are. Maybe that makes me one. Whatever.
Q: Canadians are nice and generous. What else are they?
A: I struggle a bit with defining Canadian identity because It’s filled with so many different types of people from different geographies. I think Canadians have a witty, satirical, sometimes dark sense of humour. We are incredibly diplomatic and while polite, our politeness is often just a way to mitigate our fear of confrontation, and sometimes that turns into passive aggression. We have great musicians that we’re fiercely defensive of. We get excited when anything Canadian appears in American pop culture and we take the jokes in stride. We have parental leave!
We also have our fair share of hate crimes and racist harassment, a version of Breitbart, a history of Indigenous genocide that still carries through to today, and a white nationalist running for mayor of the largest city in Canada. That’s harsh, but I feel Canada is frequently cast in this utopian light where the only news is a deer strolling in a Tim Hortons drive-thru. It’s a mix of good and bad. It’s like any place.
I often pass this book in the window of a local bookstore, and I think it sums it up:
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I’ll hang onto whatever variation of geographer identity I can get nowadays.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you’re wavering about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone, just go for it, especially if you’re young. As my new coworker Lyn says, what’s the better story when you’re eighty?
Also, here is my favourite song that features map projections:
*The irony of this video not working in Canada is not lost on me.
True to the hipster theme, Adam is a consultant-at-large on open source spatial systems and problem solving. He’s a real doctor in the academic sense, and has a truly multidisciplinary outlook on geospatial and web technology, as seen through the lens of developing human capacity to evolve and create a better world as we work out our existence in the one we have.
With a CV covering field research on sea ice, infrastructure-scale data services, professional bicycle repair, and cat herding on wilderness walking trips, he’s a stander-upon-the-shoulders-of-giants, and definitely thinks way too hard about society, human evolution, infrastructure-scale technology, geospatial magicking, and penguins. Adam was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.
Q: First off the bat, you recently attended FOSS4G in Dar es Salaam. What did you think?
A: I’ve been sitting on a blog post about it for a month. It’s been super hard to wrap up because it’s Africa + FOSS4G rolled into one. This FOSS4G really impressed on me more than anything how open source geospatial software, open data, and the communities around it can make real, on-ground change in the world. I’d never been to Africa before, and really was swept away by the experience. I made a point of travelling by foot as much as possible, trying to see the rhythm of the city, and how it works – what happens outside the western tourist cocoon (as much as that is possible). I drank a bunch of coconuts, and wished I could speak Swahili. I saw a lot of excellent technical talks. Some I didn’t expect to see, some on my ‘must-see list’. There was also a huge amount of discussion on the human and community aspects of our geospatial world. I listened to many stories, and came home with a soul full of hope about the future. However, to realise that future I’ll quote Mark Iliffe: “It’ll take all our resources, and all our privilege”. That’s an undisguised call – especially to people like me who really have very few barriers to overcome – to listen, reflect, and act. See the barriers other people face, and use our privilege to help tear them down. What sticks in my mind most from this iteration of FOSS4G was a real focus on overcoming challenges. Getting over 100 people to a conference via travel grants. Wow! Running a 1,000 person event in Africa. Wow! Walking the streets of Dar Es Salaam every day for a week. Wow!
Q: How was Zanzibar?
A: Personally, I’d intended Zanzibar to be a full switch off. Maybe at most walking to a beach every day or something. Instead, I offered space in an AirBnB I’d booked to some of the OpenDroneMap team, and ended up in a whirlwind. Still, it was inspirational. Having just finished a big conference, I did have some time to absorb and reflect on the conference in the context of Africa. One thing which struck me was the extreme inequality of life there. Literally next door to each other were 5 star tourist resorts and locals in basic homes cooking over fire. Another was how well society appears to function in chaos. Australia seems really rigid and afraid by comparison. I also appreciated the ‘on ground’ experience of the OpenDroneMap team, in particular Stephen Mather (a Zanzibar regular). It inspired an idea about how the geospatial community can be similar. We’re all trying to make progress, but like Zanzibar, there can be myriad and strange labyrinths to navigate. A friendly guide can go a long way.
Q: You live and work in our nation’s capital Canberra, what’s that like?
A: It’s awful, don’t come here. It’s seriously unaffordable. …actually it’s one of two cities in Australia I’d live in, the other being Hobart. Canberra’s most famous attribute is that it’s two hours from everything – the sea, the snow… and actually about 45 minutes from splitter cracks and heinous slabs on chunky granite if that’s your thing. It’s sometimes my thing. Its secret attribute is that in most suburbs, you can be in relatively uncurated bushland in about ten minutes on foot. As a full time cycle commuter, I also like that I can pick a bunch of routes through forests and parks, instead of battling cars. Unfortunately, like many places, Canberra is losing its urban wilderness in favour of cookie cutter housing estates.
Q: Your job involves doing a lot of work with PDAL. Do you like it?
A: Yes – PDAL is a fantastic toolkit. I really only explore a tiny part of it at the moment; there’s as much I don’t know what to do with it as I do know. It’s a real case of standing on the shoulders of giants. It has its limitations. One of the best things is that Howard Butler and team are very much cognisant of those up front – and provide as many means as possible for others to add new tools in ways which suit them. It’s an honest toolkit, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. One of things that it is, however, is being really useful!.
Q: What’s something interesting we don’t know about LiDAR?
A: All LiDAR instruments quite literally capture a point cloud – a little fuzz around whatever surface is being measured. I did a lot of work tracking down noise in LiDAR measurements, ending with hanging a LiDAR scanner in a lab and scanning a concrete floor for a few hours. Did we get a flat scan? No. We could fit a flat regression line to the data with high confidence, but the points themselves sat inside a neat biconcave envelope described by a function of range, scan angle and angular encoder uncertainty. The shape of this envelope is different for different instrument styles – line scanners, circular/ellipse pattern scanners, solid-state beams – but the fuzz is common to all LiDAR instruments and measurements.
Q: Does working with point clouds make you look down on the 2.5-D nature of regular GIS?
A: Not at all. In fact I barely understand a lot of ‘regular GIS’ things. My geo-training started with a lot of concern about minutiae – getting data right for an incredibly specific task (sea ice research); so in ‘standard GIS’ domains I’m still almost completely lost. I get there, with a lot of help from friends. And so much can still be done with good old 2D/2.5D analysis! I still like to push toward a 4, or 5D world – we can capture reality in 3D; capture time plus space, then time plus space plus insight – what we glean from analysing the world in space and time. We humans do this all the time, in fact, you’re doing it right now reading this – we really exist in at least 5D…
Q: Shapefile or GeoPackage?
A: GeoPackage! Although to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to have a proper discussion about why. Although – I can store a neat little SQLite database in there with points, or data boundaries… plus metadata… and it’s nicely self contained.
Q: You did an undergraduate in Neurobiology, Honours in Antarctic studies, and a PhD in Surveying. Why?!
A: The glib answer is why not? The true story is this (grab a beverage and a seat..): I actually applied to art school as a fresh out of high school kiddo – and didn’t get in. I hated school and did the bare minimum to pass. So my creative work really wasn’t up to scratch. Finding jobs was hard in the early 1990s, but I did OK at science and based on that, found employment as an assistant in a neurophysiology research lab. Mixing chemicals, making electrodes, anaesthetising sheep, slicing up brains and mounting slides. A couple years in, I figured it was university time – and naturally started a brand new degree program on cognitive science. This morphed into psychology/neurophysiology because I failed uni level maths (little did I know… I ended up doing two more years of solid stats… same same). A final year elective in Medical Anthropology made me question everything. So I quit, went to work as a teaching aide in a technical college, then picked up a job as a web developer based on a side job I’d had making websites back in the late 1990s. Fast forward a few years – career change time again. I applied for an honours year (4th undergrad year/masters year) multidisciplinary program in Antarctic science, got in, moved to Hobart, and went through an intense ‘in the deep end’ education in Antarctic physical and ecological systems, logistics and international law. Plus a research thesis on estimating ice floe sizes from airborne imagery.
I went straight to work (a few days after I dumped in the thesis) guiding people on Tasmania’s Overland track for a couple of summers, and being a semi-homeless outdoorsy drifter. In 2007 I was offered a job as a tech officer to support a sea ice research voyage – and abandoned my plans to move to New Zealand and become a mountain guide. I went south three years running – operating an aerial photography program and field validation measurements, progressing to LiDAR flight operations and running a bunch of GPS units until, in 2009, a PhD project was devised. I was awarded a scholarship and I went for it! The project was all about measuring sea ice elevation using airborne LIDAR, then estimating ice thickness based on some empirical modelling from that. I also needed to know the uncertainty of every single point in the point cloud – so a lot of maths (that thing I suck at) ensued. And geodesy. And three years discovering that most of the data we had so far are terrible and designing an experiment to fix that. Finally, in 2012, the plan came to life and we got what we needed to finish the job. In summary, we surveyed moving objects. I deployed the first ever robotic total survey on East Antarctic sea ice, using it to set up a coordinate system that drifted with the ice. And then, used the data to link airborne, on-ice and under-ice observations and create a PhD thesis. I got to ski around sea ice with a surveying prism; and also drilled a lot of holes in the ice. Oddly enough, my best topic at high school was geography – so the circle completes eventually…
A: Oh man. This is absolutely terrifying! And the momentum is huge! So late in 2017 there was a bit of noise in a Slack channel about organising a conference. And fast forward to now it seems to have just happened organically, and hugely. As the sponsorship coordinator my life has been really easy — the sponsors come to us! It’s been great to work with the committee, we disagree quite a lot and I have some really crazy ideas – some of which made it (yay!) – and others which really needed some moderation/re-appraisal. Whatever happens, we always manage to get something done – we all seem really good at compromise where it’s appropriate – and importantly in directions which aim to make a positive change. Which is always the grease that gets stuff moving, right? I’ve learned an awful lot from everyone in the process. We haven’t met all our goals – we wanted a perfect gender balance, we wanted to have much greater representation from indigenous communities, we wanted … the universe on a plate. What we *have* done is tapped into a rich vein – and exceeded our expectations about community interest. We have a fantastic program, and can do our best to make some audacious moves in shaping how this community can evolve as we steam ahead. I’m really looking forward to turning up – and all the buzz that happens to get the final wrinkles ironed out. I really hope we can keep this momentum going, and engage even more of the open geospatial community in our region next year!
A: It’s a call back to my psychology days – we discussed a lot how our environment shapes how we are able to perceive the world. One trip to Antarctica I was watching penguins cross fast ice for a while, and had a lightbulb moment that made me giggle – the parallel between conformist work environments and penguins is obvious. The hilarious part was how penguins solved these seemingly simple problems – and this dawning realisation that humans can fall into those same patterns.
At the end of the day I hope it’s a way to encourage reflection on the rules we make up for ourselves, and have some fun.
Q: Favourite craft beer?
A: Right now, when I order a bespoke beer, I’ll grab a Bent Spoke crankshaft IPA. Or a Velvet Cream Stout from the Wig n Pen. Canberra has a couple of awesome microbreweries, all within cycling distance of course!
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: That’s a tough one. To pick on one thing – getting to South America, the last continent I’ve never visited. With my skis and climbing gear. And banging out perfect telemark turns down huge mountains. I’ve only been in airports in Asia, come to think of it.. So there’s #2.
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: To tick off some boxes? I telemark ski in the backcountry, ride bikes, climb rocks, have a beard, and have a collection of obscure paper maps… January Makamba, the introductory speaker at FOSS4G 2018 summed it up well: we are a socially conscious community. We want to help create and maintain amazing tools that are well crafted, functional, accessible, and contribute to a world we want to keep living in. The core hipster ethos of care about what we do, and how it impacts our world, definitely resonates with me strongly. Add some geo, and there we are…
A self-confessed ‘cartonerd’ with a personal and professional passion for mapping, Ken gained his BSc in Cartography at Oxford Polytechnic and PhD in GIS at Leicester University and fell into academia. He spent 20 years in key positions in UK universities before moving to sunny California to join Esri in 2011. He has presented and published an awful lot. He blogs, tweets (@kennethfield), is past Editor of The Cartographic Journal (2005–2014), and Chair of the ICA Map Design Commission (2011–2019). He co-founded the Journal of Maps, is on the advisory board of the International Journal of Cartography, is a Fellow of both the British Cartographic Society and Royal Geographic Society, is a Chartered Geographer (GIS), and only the second Honorary Member of the New Zealand Cartographic Society.
Q. Ok, I guess we have to start by clearly laying out your geohipster qualifications. Let’s get into #geocheese, which you revealed at the recent (Sept 2018) #geomob event in London. Tell us about this project.
Oh my, geohipster qualifications eh? I guess I was wearing chunky framed glasses (and the occasional beard) way back before geohipsters even knew that it was a thing. Does that count? I’ve been in the mapping game for around 30 years, longer if you count drawing odd fantasy maps, usually of sci-fi planets, as a kid. I’ve increasingly sought to take mapping beyond the defaults whether that’s in the digital realm or, sometimes, through drawing maps by hand. I got really into the hand-drawn process when I picked up my pencils after a long hiatus during the aftermath of the Trump Presidency victory. I drew a satirical map called Trump’s Ties and found it to be a really cathartic process. There’s much to be said for sketching and ‘doing’ as opposed to just pushing digital data around a screen which is, I think, the modern cartographic coalface for most of us.
So the cheese idea (and I like #geocheese btw) was one of those where I had a eureka moment and decided to make a map of the distribution of British cheese. We have such a strong history of cheese production in the UK and, since moving to California, I reflect on the taste and quality often because it’s so difficult to get good cheese in the USA. The idea came from a map of another British obsession – the humble biscuit mapped by Chris Wesson in 2017. It was a great poster, explaining where the jammy dodger and digestive were from, among a range of other tasty morsels. So why not a map of cheese? You can find a few artsy maps online but I wanted to make the map out of cheese, not just make a map of cheese.
There’s a load of detail over at my blog but I firstly had to design and make a cheese board in the shape of the United Kingdom. This required the design of a map of ceremonial counties and then the use of an exported svg file to drive a CNC router and laser engraver. A lot of craft went into making the board and I couldn’t have done it without the expertise of artisan woodworker Andrew Abbott who helped bring it to life. I’m big on collaboration and if you don’t have the necessary chops then find someone who does. I’m always trying to get map-makers to do the same; to team with cartographers to improve the map; so I followed my own advice and probably prevented personal injury from a variety of dangerous tools as a result.
The cheese to go on the board was whittled down from a large list to around 30 pieces, covering the geography, range of styles, classics and rarities of UK cheese production. I sourced it from half a dozen suppliers and that was that. A bit of logistics to get all the pieces together for the #geomob event (and, by the way, thanks for entertaining my daft idea!) and it was good to go. I was delighted that the cheese was devoured. It was a fun project and creating a real-life, time-limited edible cheese map exhibit is definitely something I’m glad I did. Maps can be fun. They can also be downright tasty. I’ve had a few people ask about a craft beer map or a whiskey map…hmm. This could become a thing
Q. But dairy products are far from your only geohip media. Earlier this summer you unleashed a wave of envy with your Lego globe.
Ahh yes, the Lego globe. I’m a bit of a Lego freak. It’s one of those things that I loved playing with as a kid, just building stuff from those wonderful small plastic bricks. I had a lot of Lego when I was young but it was mostly random pieces, rather than sets. I guess adulthood eventually brings the financial muscle required to actually buy the kits and, so, it’s as much an adult plaything. At least that’s my excuse. But there’s never been a Lego globe set to my knowledge. You occasionally see them if you go to one of the Legoland parks but how do you go about building one? Again, it became a bit of a challenge and I like a mapping challenge.
While I like the kits I can buy and I can easily follow instructions I’m no master builder so I was delighted when I eventually found a German guy called Dirk who had not only designed a globe (and a flat world map as it happens) but, he also sells the plans at a very modest price. Once you’ve got the plans you set about buying the bricks from second hand online brick markets. Fascinating to even learn that there are thousands of people who have online stores trading in Lego bricks. I sourced the bricks from over 60 different sellers from around 10 different countries. The postie did wonder what all the packages were (that rattled). I had some explaining to do. There’s over 3,800 pieces and it then took about 30 hours to build. It’s not glued so it’s a pretty technical build in that it can easily cave in on itself because it’s a sphere. It’s mostly hollow but for a few solid layers top and bottom. There’s a large central vertical column between the poles, and four struts coming off that at the equator so there’s some structure but it’s pretty fragile.
My colleague John Nelson and I were involved in putting together a ‘creative cartography’ display for our User Conference in San Diego in July 2018 and I offered to display the globe near the exhibit. So we were able to do a Lego-themed exhibit (while not actually mentioning the name Lego of course – too much lawyer work involved in that one!). It was a real draw and selfies of people with the globe were popping up everywhere – what’s not to like about a globe made of Lego at a conference for map geeks!? I also took it on tour to the UK Mapping Festival where it was also exhibited behind a London bus. I have a large packing case for it now so am happy to take it to various places if people want it on display. It’s just a bit of fun and huge thanks to Dirk for his original work. I pretty much just bought his kit and built a copy. It’s certainly geohip and was quite an effort to source and build but Dirk’s is the only globe I’ve found with pretty accurate cartography and map colours and that was, of course, pretty important to me. Just please don’t ask how much it cost.
Q. On top of all that you list yourself on LinkedIn as a “Professional cartonerd”. What sorts of reactions does that get?
Well it’s better than the reaction I get to my official job title of ‘Senior Cartographic Product Engineer’. I have long discussions about that at work. We all have fairly generic job titles which is fine, but not on a business card which tends to leave a quizzical frown on people’s faces. In fact, I don’t even bother with business cards and the like because it kicks off a pointless conversation. But bizarrely, I’ve never had a job where I’ve been called a cartographer. Much of what I do is part of a cartographer’s job but I write, teach, blog, make maps, do research, design stuff, comment and critique, etc. The point is that people perceive ‘cartographer’ in fairly stereotypical and narrowly defined terms. It’s often regarded as old school. You know, people hunched over light tables with pens and rulers. I once actually did that as a job for a few months work experience and vowed never to become a cartographer. To date, I’ve kept that promise to myself even though I ‘do’ cartography. Dataviz expert, data scientist, data architect, coder, etc all resonate more favourably so I tend not to pigeonhole myself as ‘cartographer’. I wrote this up as suffering a condition called Cartographic Identity Disorder a few years ago.
I was given the name ‘marauding cartonerd’ after an infamous online ‘debate’ I had many years ago with someone who had made a wholly inaccurate map that I took exception to. It had gone viral but there were some serious flaws in the map and, therefore, the argument that was presented. Of course, no-one particularly cared and the maker of the map just got a little frustrated at what he saw was a pedantic cartographer pouring cold water on his otherwise great idea. Critique is something we get taught in cartography (if you studied it, which I did). Yet I have a sense that receiving critique isn’t something many are particularly open to which is a shame because ultimately it improves your work. Anyway, the moniker stuck, I started my blog with that name as a place to offer critique in a hopefully humorous style (though British humour and sarcasm is not to everyone’s taste as I have found numerous times). And I guess adding the ‘Professional’ bit to the front gives it a bit of tongue-in-cheek self aggrandising value. I actually tried to get it on my business card at work. It was rejected outright. But it’s really just a bit of fun, not to be taken too seriously, and provokes far more interesting discussions with people I meet for the first time.
I’m glad you think the book is a bit more serious. I guess it is, but I had immense fun writing and making it too. The ‘why’ is pretty simple – I just kept being told by those closest to me that I should put my thoughts, experience and opinions down in a place that can be easily shared. I’ve amassed a whole heap of experience from some brilliant people over the years and why not make it into a book to give others a shortcut to that experience. Given there really aren’t any good comprehensive books on the subject then maybe it was time I stepped up to do the job and give back to the discipline that has given me so much. And my background of a couple of decades teaching students about cartography always left me wanting that perfect missing text to support them in their studies. Sure, there’s a few good texts but never the one I really wanted and those that I used way back in the late eighties in my degree studies have long been consigned to the history of cartography pile…though I still have many of them. Concepts rarely die. Technology simply finds a new way to harness them.
I get asked the ‘who is the book for’ question all the time because people want to naturally work out if it fits their specific needs. The get-out answer is ‘everyone and anyone who wants to make a map’ but that doesn’t sit squarely with trying to place it neatly into a traditional context. But it’s not a traditional book. It doesn’t conform to what a traditional textbook looks like yet I hope it has enough content to support its adoption as a class text or a reference. It’s not a coffee-table book either because it goes further than simply delighting the eye with map-porn. Though it is lavishly illustrated with a mix of original (2/3rd) and third-party (1/3rd) maps and illustrations – some familiar, some perhaps not so. Some obvious, some perhaps a little tangential but all brought together to show the breadth of cartographic practice and excellence in design. I think of it as a desk companion. The title has a full stop (period) after it because there’s an intent that it is set up to be THE modern text on cartography. There’s a little bit of arrogance in there but I felt I was only ever going to get one shot at writing this book and I was going to give it my absolute everything. Many books I have on my shelf are either outdated or just dry academic texts and who wants those any more? We get our information from so many sources that if you’re going to write a book then it has to be attractive in structure, content, and appearance. It has to appeal to a readership who find it tough to pull themselves away from Wikipedia as their go-to sage. Or who might even question why anyone would part with hard cash for a paper-based information product. But this was always designed to be a book. I think there’s a lot of value in having a physical product that you can flick through. There’s a certain permanence about a good book and we’ve gone way beyond a traditional design ethos to make it something both instructional but which visually delights and makes you actually want to turn the page. We thought of every spread as a separate poster that you’d want to put on your wall. Every time you turn the page you see something different and interesting.
After many many alternative straplines (including the working title of “the dog’s b*llocks of map-making” – a title that was very much loved during its authoring but which, for obvious reasons, was never going to be allowed in print) I settled on ‘a compendium of design-thinking for map-makers’. The wording is deliberate. It’s a collection of ideas, concepts and practical information. It gives people a grounding but also enough detail that they can put ideas into practice. It covers the subject broadly but with just enough depth to be useful and without getting too ‘academic’. You could probably find an entire book that covers each of the individual topics which says much about cartography more generally as it’s a vast subject. I also wanted to infuse traditional cartographic ideas and thinking with material from the wider design-world. All too often we retreat to our standard cartographic education and background and I feel this has become a division. Designers make maps. So do data scientists and newspaper graphics people. In fact, everyone makes maps yet they’re not necessarily keen on exploring cartography. The inverse is true – too often cartographers fail to acknowledge that their specialism is part of a wider world of design. So, trying to marry the two, bridge the divide and attract people from those two sides might help them learn something about the wider world of map-making. And I used the term ‘map-makers’ rather than ‘cartographers’ in the strapline because I didn’t want it to be seen as something solely for those old school cartographers. It should help relative newcomers better understand the ins and outs of cartographic concept and practice. It should also act as a guide and refresher for those of us with more experience and, perhaps, a background in cartography. Sort of a reference for those little bits of map-making that perhaps you’ve never attempted.
All in all I’ve tried not to pigeon-hole it. I know that makes it difficult to define a target audience but if I were writing an academic textbook, or a coffee-table book, or a manual that supported making maps using Esri software etc then it’d be a different beast altogether. The fact Esri have allowed me to make a book that is blatantly not advocating Esri products is a major win and I sincerely thank them for taking a leap of faith with this book. It was a tough sell internally for a long while but people are beginning to think that we should be doing more of this sort of stuff – general reference detailed guides about domains. Of course, all of the original maps in the book were made using Esri software but it’s implicit. It’s a tangential demonstration of the design capability of the software but, of course, my main motivation is to support map-makers in their endeavors whatever tools of choice they use. Better mapping all round is the aim. I was also able to persuade Esri Press to publish it in Oxford English. It just wouldn’t have sounded like me if it was written in American English but for an American publisher that was a really huge concession. Again, kudos to many people who went with my idea!
The reaction has been hugely positive. Sales have been pleasantly surprising. Quite a few were sceptical of the potential to get a good return on the huge investment that Esri Press made in supporting this project but it’s doing really well. There’s been lots of really nice reviews and comments, many from luminaries in the world of mapping. I mean, when you start your day with complimentary emails from the likes of Mark Monmonier you get a buzz that your work has found a home among many other great map books and revered authors. I was really fortunate to work with a few dozen fantastic people who contributed to the book too. I wanted different voices and experts to describe maps and ideas, so it’s not just me and my views and ideas. I think this has really helped generate interest. My favourite quote, though, was from one of my young nieces, who upon seeing a copy just before it went to the printers shrugged and simply said ‘who’s going to buy that?’. Family can always be assured to keep you grounded. It’s important. But, professionally, people do seem to like it. I walk around at work and there’s copies in offices and posters on walls and I’m hopeful that some of the content will rub off in a positive way. I’ve met people in eastern Africa who were desperate for a copy and I see tweets from all over the world of people unboxing it and posting their thoughts. I am genuinely humbled and thrilled that it’s been so warmly received. I couldn’t have done it without dozens of people though, and they all have a piece of ownership of the book. There’s a few more details about the book here and, hey, it’ll soon be Christmas. Order early. Order often 😉
Q. Life’s not all geohip projects though, even a geohipster must eat. Tell us a bit about your day job. What are you getting up to?
You mean life as a ‘Senior Cartographic Product Engineer’? Well, yes, the job pays the mortgage and buys the cheese but it’s a great job and I love working at Esri in sunny California. For a kid that wanted to be a NASA astronaut or a California Highway Patrol Officer (too much time spent watching CHiPs as a kid) then working in cartography and GIS in Cali is a dream come true. I arrived here mid-career after 20+ years as an academic in the UK. I’m colloquially referred to as the ‘resident cartographer’ in that I’m seen and used as an internal expert. I work on the development team for ArcGIS Pro but get to work in other areas (like content, ArcGIS Online etc) as needed. Day to day I help the team with ideas for making the software better or more useful for making maps. We have some really bright software engineers and developers so my role is to help shape how map authoring tools are designed based on what I know and what I learn from those that want better or new tools.
Thankfully no-one lets me anywhere near the codebase as my coding skills lapsed many many years ago. But it’s fulfilling in that I know that tens of thousands of people use the software to support their own cartographic work and I see ideas and design influences appear every year at our User Conference map gallery which I also help judge. A lot of the maps I make are done predominantly for internal purposes. Testing of the software is ongoing but a lot of tests are done using relatively small datasets. So I try and make ‘real’ maps with large-ish data sets. Often I’m trying to test the tools and software to destruction to find those naughty little bugs that you only really ever find when you try and do ‘real’ work. I also push the software to try and use it in ways it was perhaps never designed for, to derive new workflows or show people how to go beyond the defaults. To that end, I get to make maps on topics and datasets that I find interesting, and write about my maps and publish them as examples of what can be done with the software. Blogs help bring ideas to the world that people can go and experiment with. And, of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so it always brings a smile to my face when I see an idea permeate across geo and turn up being used in other ways by people using different software. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned. So I also get to write, and teach workshops, research stuff, present at conferences and generally act as a spokesperson for high quality cartography. A couple of years ago my better half, the astoundingly talented Dr Linda Beale and I built a toolbox of terrain tools – just scripts that we built to allow people to create different ways of representing terrain than the usual default hillshades. It’s been downloaded nearly 20,000 times and we see evidence of their use all over the place. It’s a small example of being given the flexibility to just ‘do good work’ and share it. I’m convinced if you build decent tools, maps, and interesting cartographic styles and workflows then people will experiment and take them further. That’s definitely a really key part of the job for me – to see how others make use of the things you build. I’m currently building a set of cartogram tools too with the help of a number of people. These are the sort of things that might otherwise take ages to get into core software but which can be relatively easily built for those that want to get to work with them.
As well as Linda, I have the immense privilege of working alongside some seriously talented cartographers too. Having the likes of John Nelson, Wes Jones, Edie Punt, Bojan Savric and Nathan Shephard (and many others!) around drives us all to be innovative and find new or better ways of doing things. It also helps having experts along the hallway when you get stuck! That’s also why we developed our MOOC on Cartography, to share some of that expertise. At the time of writing we’re into our second offering and have so far got nearly 70,000 people registered. Imagine that – 70,000 people all wanting to learn a little bit about cartography. We had great fun making the videos and designing the exercises and, of course, it’s free so it’s nice to be able to do something that we can genuinely give back to the community. It’s also really pleasing that the company as a whole is happy to support ideas that, perhaps, aren’t at the absolute core of building GIS software and services. It’s a real privilege to be able to work in this way and support our general work through bringing new and different ideas to the table..
Q. Many of the (often quite lengthy) posts on your blog analyse map design. Occasionally you praise good design, but you’re also often liberal in dishing out the criticism. What’s the motivation for the blog and what sort of feedback do you get?
Yeah – I’m not very good at being brief. Sorry. As I mentioned earlier, that blog (my personal cartonerd blog) is deliberately designed to be a place for somewhat humorous takes on bad maps of all types. And there’s a lot of them about. I try and explain why certain designs, data manipulation, symbology or projections simply don’t work to support the job that the map and the map-makers claim to be doing. Really, it’s a taste test for the quality of the map because map readers in the general population are more than likely not attuned to knowing about such things. Why should they? They are busy being experts in their own sphere yet the map, as a document, is often considered to be fact. They can just as easily be fake through deliberate action or through a little slackness on the part of the map-maker, often simply through them not fully understanding their actions either. Much of this is not deliberate. So the blog simply tries to point this out, to mediate the message of a poorly designed map so people can better appreciate the ways it might be lying to them. I get far more grumpy responses than praise for pointing stuff out but that’s to be expected. No-one likes being told their map isn’t particularly good. I get critique on my work all the time but you kinda have to be able to disassociate comments about the map from a personal attack, which is never the intention. It’s always about the work. The map and its message, which I am simply pointing out is flawed as designed. So it’s intent is educational. Often, cutting out some relatively simple but commonly made mistakes would make a far better product.
So I often get seen as this grumpy, curmudgeonly middle-aged guy who just hates on maps. That’s not strictly true but that’s the focus of that particular blog and if that’s all you see of my work then I understand that impression. I am forthright. I do tell it as it is. I know that’s not always an approach that people find comfortable but I’d rather be up front and totally honest. But if people care to look a little wider they would see balance in what I do. I am also Chair of the International Cartographic Association Map Design Commission and that gives me more scope to look at the positives in maps. A couple of years ago I blogged a map a day for a year, writing up a few words on why it exhibits excellence in design and those are still online for people to explore. It’s almost the inverse of the cartonerd blog but, together, they balance each other nicely. And, of course, there’s plenty of other blogs, presentations and suchlike where I focus on what’s good in maps. I guess people like to gravitate to me poking a little fun at a bad map though. That’s ok. I’ll happily engage in debates on maps.
Q. It seems you’re not just hunched over the keyboard though, you get out on the conference circuit. Which also has its pros and cons, as you recently documented. What makes for a good geo conference in the modern age?
I am privileged in my job that part of what I do is to get out and about around the world. But you’re right, I think most conferences are getting a little tired and that’s driven by several factors. They often fall back on historical delivery models. They are often organised by people who you rarely see elsewhere so they default to what they know. There’s simply too many geo conferences! If I get handed a tote bag with flyers from vendors and sponsors I know I’m in for a pretty tedious few days. That junk usually gets dumped straight into the hotel bin though I try and simply not pick it up anymore. Conferences are historically places to meet people, network, learn, find out new stuff, and share your ideas. But all too often it’s the same people who go to the same conferences. I liken them to clubs. A certain group of like-minded people who already know they enjoy each other’s company goes to club A, and another group goes to club B, and they are very unlikely to meet each other. And in geo in particular, you have many people entering the realm from a variety of different backgrounds. Once it was only people working in hardcore mapping agencies, then the wider world of GIS brought others to the table (and new clubs emerged), now students of computer science are finding work and excitement with data that happens to have coordinates (and new clubs, often referred to as meetups, have emerged). Yet the question is, do they want to belong to these other clubs? I sense not and the evidence is they usually shun older clubs and form their own new club to be seen as fresh and relevant. And rather than these older clubs trying to find ways to get them to join in, they should be looking to change the model in ways that meets modern needs and which encourages a bit of intermingling.
It’s a little like cartography more generally. Every few years new technology comes along and disrupts practice. You can either be one of those mapping people who bemoans having to constantly re-tool, or you simply take a deep breath and learn new stuff. If I’d been the former then my career would have come to a rapid end decades ago. You have to move with the times and keep up, keep learning, not be afraid to ditch old habits and practices, or be that force of change that helps drive innovation. Too many geo conferences are stuck so far in the past that it makes taking days out of your schedule and money out of your budget a questionable activity. We meet in so many different ways now. Only this morning I had a conversation via Twitter’s DM with someone who, only a few years ago, I might only have met at a conference once a year. So the shrinking world means we have to rethink these meetings. They have to become something that people want to go to, not feel an obligation to support. It’s not impossible. I like the #geomob model of more frequent, less formal meetups. I think a lot of people gravitate to that sort of gettogether. But even at the recent UK Mapping Festival it was fascinating how few people who attended the conference during the day went to the #geomob event in the same city in the evening. Bar a few, almost completely different sets of people but which would really benefit from sharing ideas and experiences between their de facto groupings. It’s just a case of developing events at which both groups can feel comfortable and where they see value. Otherwise the groups become self-selecting and self-organising rather than offering proper outreach and events that drives mutually inclusive rather than mutually exclusive activities.
There are too many geo societies and groups in the UK though. It’s fragmented and, so, that drives the divisions through different club mentalities and events. I have no magic solution but I do suggest people look at models that are used elsewhere for inspiration. I’m a big fan of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference. It’s annual. It travels to different US cities, often second tier cities like Boulder CO, or Norfolk VA to avoid the costs associated with the major cities. And they have a programme that attracts a really diverse crowd. You have the GISers mixing with the Adobe fans. You have decade old cartographers mixing with artists, designers and coders. You have the Esri crowd mixing with those from Mapbox, CARTO and others. You have map publishers like National Geographic in attendance alongside those that work for the New York Times and the Washington Post for instance. People from totally different backgrounds and with different workflows and needs. The key connecting factor is the map. Everyone is there because they are interested in maps. No angst. No tribal tendencies. Just a shared passion and good conversations. But when I go to FOSS4G I still sense some tribal BS. When I attend the more traditional mapping conferences in the UK I still see out-moded organisation and people wondering why new folks aren’t there. It can be different and the NACIS model somehow manages to stay ahead of the curve.
I’d like to see modern geo-events be fewer and more inclusive. Different tracks and content that attracts a diverse range of people who are interested in, work in, or simply have a fascination for maps, geo, GIS, however they frame it. Such an event shouldn’t be directly linked to a particular society or club mentality. It needs to bring together different communities and be marketed at those communities in ways that gives them a real reason to attend. And that might be through different strategies for different communities. I’m not saying for one minute that this is easy. If it were, I’m quite convinced people would already be working towards it. But, instead of tinkering with models that we’ve relied on for years, perhaps ripping up the template and trying to find something fresh is what’s needed. After all, the entire purpose of a conference is to get together, share and learn. That contact between people during a talk or in the bar in the evening is often so fruitful. New relationships emerge and new ideas form. I’ve relied on conferences throughout my career to support my own lifelong learning. They help keep my work relevant and they have led to so many wonderful experiences and the development of a terrific network of colleagues, many of whom I now count as some of my closest friends. It’d be a shame if future geo-people don’t have an opportunity to do these things just because they feel that events aren’t relevant any more. We have to drive to make them relevant.
Take the #geocheese as a perfect example. If I hadn’t seen Chris’ biscuit map hanging on the wall at a conference last year I may never had got the spark for a map of cheese. And because of the map of cheese, I was invited to answer some questions for this GeoHipster blog. These opportunities sometimes happen by design but, more often than not, they’re serendipitous. You learn stuff, hone an new idea, execute it, and new opportunities emerge as a result. Take the Cartography book as another example. Because it’s doing well I’ve been able to pitch another book idea and get support. Nothing quite as grandiose this time but a useful book nevertheless. I’m looking forward to really getting going on this in the latter part of this year and early 2019.
Q: What closing advice do you have for all the geohipsters out there?
I’m probably the last person to be giving advice to budding geohipsters. Just do what you love doing. Find a way to make your voice heard and own your work by putting your name to it. It builds respect and, eventually, authority. Don’t get too caught up in any hyperbole that might come with your work and take critique in a positive fashion, never personally. Learn from the past and what people have found is best practice from decades of learning and figuring it out – but don’t be afraid to bend a few rules once you’ve learnt how they can be bent meaningfully. Understand that very little is actually new any more so build on what’s gone before rather than always trying to reinvent. Cite your sources and inspirations. Be humble in your work but find ways to enjoy what you do. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. We live a geo-lifestyle. It’s hard to detach the profession from personal interest. Also, look beyond your own sphere. I found so much out during the process of writing my book. I mean, who ever imagined they’d read a quote from Bruce Lee in a book on Cartography but once I’d seen it it had to go in. I think it’s a perfect way of capturing the essence of being in geo, whether you’re a middle-aged geo-hippy-hipster like me or someone a little newer to the mapping game: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” Enjoy Lego if that takes your fancy. If not, eat some cheese!