Terry Stigers: “When done correctly, maps are truly beautiful.”

My favorite picture of myself and my son. I’m the old, scruffy one.

“I was born, which came as a bit of a shock but I rallied quickly. I survived childhood, which is hardly surprising considering the time period during which this occurred. I also survived adolescence, which surprised the hell out of everyone who knew me back then. I attended college twice – once when I was too young to properly appreciate it, and once when I was old enough to know better. I have two degrees, neither of which gets much use these days. I have had a plethora of jobs but really only one career. Truth is I’m interested in pretty much everything, which doesn’t really pay very well. I am married to a long-suffering, saint of a woman who honestly deserves much better. We have the perfect child. In my life all things map related take the form of a hobby, albeit a surprisingly persistent one. I have only gotten paid to be a Map Dork once (twice if you count the time a local brewery gave me a case of beer for a map showing where their beer could be found). I haven’t yet died.”

Terry was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: Please tell us about your background. How did you end up working with GIS?
I am an archaeologist by training and education. While still in college, I took a class called ‘Computer Mapping’, which had the lot of us create a road atlas using MapInfo 5.0. I immediately saw the usefulness of GIS applied to archaeology, so over the course of the following Summer I contacted ESRI and secured myself a copy of ArcView 3.2 (back then ESRI gave students substantial discounts). The rest is archaeology (with a little bit of history and GIS thrown in).

Q: What do you think has been the most promising recent (within the last three years) development in GIS? What do you think is the most concerning?

To be honest, I don’t have an answer for this one. I’ve been out of the loop for some time now. It’s not that GIS no longer fits into my life (it does), it’s just that I no longer spend any of my time dallying on the bleeding edge. These days, when I play with maps I want tools that just work. Being at the forefront of any tech requires more troubleshooting than I’m willing to engage in at the moment.

Q: What does your typical work day look like and how do you typically use GIS in your work?

I was going to answer this with an apologetic explanation about how I pretty much don’t really use GIS any more. But then yesterday I began work on a banner graphic for my campaign page for my city council run. There is a landmark atop a ridge in our town: Poet’s Seat Tower (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poet%27s_Seat_Tower). I thought a profile view of the ridge and tower would make a nice banner graphic. While normal humans would probably just open up Photoshop and whip up something nice, the Map Dork in me stirred grumpily and insisted I do things differently. So I downloaded some elevation data and used QGIS to convert it into a DEM. I then downloaded a model of the tower from 3D Warehouse (luckily, the model in question was one I did myself years ago, so no recompense or attribution is needed), packed both the DEM and the model into a 3D modelling program (Bryce, in this particular instance), then exported a nice profile view using a distance mask for easy conversion to color. Now I just have to add a little color and I’ll be in business.

Q: Not surprisingly, you have written about your use of historical maps in the past. You have also occasionally written about techniques to produce historical-looking maps with modern GIS tools. What are some of the maps that have influenced you? What about cartographers?

I cannot point directly at any particular maps or cartographers – I love them all. And what I love most about old maps is the ease with which they (usually) can be interpreted. I am referring here to their relative lack of keys/legends. One glance at an old map and you can immediately pick out and identify features. Mountains, forests (many even differentiate between coniferous and deciduous forests), towns, wetlands. Modern maps are not good about this (although some meaningful progress has been made). I think it’s because modern maps are often trying too hard to be too many different things at once. One of the things I love so much about the GeoHipster calendar is that it usually showcases maps that deftly avoid this trap. Maps that instead focus on providing concise, easily interpreted information on a given subject as it applies to a given landscape. When done correctly (as they usually are) these maps are truly beautiful.

Q: Do you have any maps displayed in your home? If so, what are they?

We have three maps on display in our home. One is a stylized isometric map of Manhattan. Another is a subway map of the valley where we live (although this valley does not, in fact, have any subways). Lastly, we have a cloth map of Italy which identifies regions according to the wines and cheeses produced there. Because wine. And cheese.

Q: Despite your public break with social media, your recently joined Facebook. (I will admit that I almost contacted you first to tell you an account had been hacked.) What prompted you to do this now?

Truth is, I’ve been toying with the idea of joining Facebook for some time now. It seems to have an exclusive lock on local news around these parts. Is the town pool open? Did they change the venue for that Human Rights Commision meeting? Is the protest on the town common still being held despite the rain? The answers to these and a host of other hyper-local questions can only be found on Facebook.

What finally made me take the plunge, though, was my decision to run for local office (relax – it’s just the city council). On the local level, running for office is virtually impossible without a Facebook presence.

Q: In what ways do you think the pervasiveness of Facebook benefits local politics and in what ways might it be a detriment?

I think Facebook’s usefulness to local politics lies in communication. Despite all its shortcomings (which are legion), FB is a decent vehicle for interpersonal communication. It allows for community-driven rules, which is an absolute necessity for civil discourse (don’t take my word for it – just look at Twitter if you want to see what happens to communication when there are no rules). As far as I can tell, the major detriment FB poses to local politics lies in participants being haunted by their past. Luckily, this does not (yet) affect me, since I only took the plunge when I decided to enter into the local political scene. So my profile isn’t already full of embarrassing photos of my sordid past.

Q: What prompted you to run for office and what are you hoping to accomplish? How do you think your background in geography informs or affects your campaign or your positions on issues?

There is a portrait of my grandfather (August) that hangs on the wall in our stairwell. August was born in Germany in the year 1900. He had a highly refined sense of duty, so when his native land went to war August was quick to enlist in the navy. He survived The Great War and returned home to Germany, where he married his sweetheart, Mary.

In time the Nazis came to power in Germany, and one day they knocked on August’s door and ‘requested’ that he enlist in their navy. August refused, so the Nazis took him away and threw him in jail on imaginary charges. They released August after a day or so, since what they really wanted was more soldiers for their wartime ambitions. A short time later another knock came at the door, followed by another ‘request’, another refusal, more jailtime.

This routine repeated itself a total of nine times. August was fairly certain he wouldn’t survive a tenth repetition, so he and my grandmother grabbed whatever they could carry and fled for their lives. They made their way to upstate New York, where they quickly settled down to raise a family. Their third and last child was my mother, Ruth.

It turned out the Nazis did indeed return for August a tenth time. In his absence they instead arrested his brother, Karl, either by mistake or out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Karl died in a concentration camp.

When the United States entered into World War II, August immediately enlisted in the American navy. He was an intensely patriotic man and when his adopted country needed him he did not question or hesitate. When the United States later became embroiled in a conflict in Korea, August volunteered yet again. My grandfather believed in obligation and duty and he was fiercely loyal to the country that took him in when his native land betrayed him.

I walk by that portrait of my grandfather repeatedly every day. I usually smile and/or nod a greeting, grateful for the level of comfort my family enjoys thanks to the sacrifices August’s generation made on our behalf. Lately, though, passing by my grandfather’s portrait has become a rather more thoughtful process. I am fully cognizant of the current state of our nation and the world and I am, of course, concerned. I do not fear overmuch for my immediate family – we are middle-class white people deep in the heart of Liberal America – but I am nonetheless concerned. It’s not that we have nothing to fear – we just have less to fear than pretty much every other demographic in America. Which makes me think about personal duty and whether my privilege obligates me to do more than I have been.

Nowadays, encountering my grandfather’s portrait gives me pause. I watch the news and I see what’s going on and when I walk by August’s portrait I hear his voice ask: “So what are you doing about it?”

Frankly, I don’t have a satisfactory answer. For most of my life I have felt that voting constituted a sufficient level of personal participation in our participatory democracy. But a one-word answer no longer seems adequate when responding to my grandfather’s spirit. And trying to convince myself that participation in social media constitutes a meaningful contribution falls well short.

And so I find myself feeling honorbound to roll up my sleeves and wade into the rising waters of America’s current mess and do my part for the cleanup detail. And the best and most immediate way I can think to do this is to get involved in local politics.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Hang around with my kid.

Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you and do you consider yourself one? Feel free to respond with all of the irony you can muster.

To me, ‘geohipster’ describes a person who has a deep-seated love of GIS, but mainly just wants to use it to locate the nearest cup of pumpkin spice latte. Oftimes bearded – and always partial to flannel – geohipsters are the standard bearers for modern GIS. Let’s be honest here – the overwhelming majority of the population only use GIS as a tool to find their way to food, coffee, and beer (not necessarily in that order). Geohipsters are especially well suited to provide just such services.

I myself am not a geohipster. In fact, I am instead a geohippy. The two are very similar, except geohippies wear tie dye instead of flannel, our facial hair is considerably less well-groomed, and we tend to replace coffee with other – stronger – mind-altering substances. Also, there was a promise of free sex, but that one has yet to materialize and frankly I’m getting a little pissed off about it.