Some Thanksgiving Geo-Thoughts

Happy Thanksgiving!  I’ve been running a lot recently, and when I run, I think. Here are a few things that have been bouncing around my brain while dodging traffic.

  • Is it just me, or is every “viral” map that hits the internet lately powered by either CartoDB or Mapbox?  It’s pretty impressive to see these two companies gain traction and grow, especially in the non-traditional geo-crowd.  If anyone one sees a “viral” map from Esri, that wasn’t made by Esri, let me know.
  • Recently at work I’ve been building a custom interpolation algorithm to analyze some model output.   The out-of-the-box tools in the standard GIS suites usually aren’t flexible or fast enough for my work, so I have been using scipy and numpy to code some stuff up.  I hadn’t used the spatial component in scipy until this project. Scipy spatial, in combination with numpy, has been a powerful alternative for coding the analysis. If you haven’t, you should check it out. Since I am working in a modeled spatial environment (sparse and standard grids), I’ve been using Jupyter Notebook for an IDE and matplotlib for on-the-fly visualization, both of which are awesome.
  • I am excited that Boston has been chosen as the host city of FOSS4G 2017!  I haven’t been to a FOSS4G conference yet, but I am 100% going to FOSS4G in 2017. Big thumbs up to Avid Geo, the folks at AppGeo, and others in the Boston geo-sphere who put the proposal together.  FOSS4G is the future of geo and GIS. There is no ifs, ands or buts about it.
  • Rant time – We, as an industry, need to get colleges and universities to stop providing (or drastically improve) GIS certificate programs (also, we need to end “technical certifications”, but that’s a whole other rant).  For the most part, many don’t do enough to really help someone trying to become a geo-professional or improve their skills if they are already working in the field. In many cases, I believe they can railroad students into a skillset that is really only viable in the very narrow role of a GIS technician.  Those departments that teach GIS and geospatial analysis should work more on developing and integrating cross discipline geospatial curricula that provides technological depth, solid analysis skills and strong problem solving skills.  All too often I have seen the “Open ArcMap, push some buttons, use some shapefiles, and make a crappy map project route” approach to fulfill requirements. This is a horrible disservice to students, many of whom are competing for jobs that are becoming increasingly tougher and tougher to land.  Geospatial higher education has to be better. Colleges and universities don’t need to be career training centers, but they should teach the skills necessary to for their students to be able to compete in today’s environment.

That’s it for now!  Have a good holiday season.

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Why OpenStreetMap is the Most Important thing in Geo

Not too long ago, Bill Morris, posted the following tweet:

Go read the blog post that Bill links to from Mapzen and then come back here.

I love OpenStreetMap. It’s the best. In my opinion, it’s the most important thing to have happened to the geo community since Dr. Tomlinson started working with map overlays in the 1960s*.

Geo-tech has rapidly grown and matured over the past two decades. Not long ago, most things GIS and geo-tech were reserved for governments (local to national) and academic institutions. Thankfully, that isn’t the case in today’s world. Geo-thinking and geo-tech is everywhere and OpenStreetMap is a major reason why.

But how has OpenStreetMap helped make location and geo so prevalent to a growing variety of industries and institutions outside of government and academia? Why is that story that Bill linked to so important?  I think there are a few reason.

  • OpenStreetMap has greatly expanded access to geo data worldwide – When OpenStreetMap started over ten years ago it was created as a response to limited geo data access, primarily in the UK. From those early days to now OpenStreetMap, and its many partners, have made access to both consuming and contributing data increasingly more easy and efficient – for anywhere in the world. Here in the US of A we have always had pretty great access to some level of geo-data, but that hasn’t always been the case in many other countries.  Beyond opening up data resources, OpenStreetMap has also helped introduce spatial data to a wide audience, including many with very little knowledge of geo as perhaps you or I know it.  That’s awesome.
  • It is open (and flexible) – Some early detractors (including myself) were once worried about OpenStreetMap undercutting the “authoritative” and “established” (and for cost) data providers in the marketplace.  I think there was an early worry about data quality and data trust. I believe that almost all of those worries are now gone. The fact that anyone with a web connection can view or edit the data makes it that much more powerful. And because it is open, I believe the people who contribute (many of whom are “pros”) take their adds and edits very seriously. I know I do. OpenStreetMap is also incredibly flexible.  Even though the commercial data vendors have gotten much faster at incorporating updates (in general, governments are still slow), OpenStreetMap is known for its ultra-fast updates, primarily due to its dedicated community of contributors. That, to me, is one of its greatest advantages. The data is never old on OpenStreetMap.
  • It is for the greater good –  One of my favorite things about OpenStreetMap is its large and dedicated community. One of the best parts of this community has been HOT OSM, whose members help coordinate updates to OpenStreetMap to areas impacted by natural or humanitarian disasters. The data they develop in the hours and days after a major event (for a great example, look at their work following the 2010 Haiti earthquake ), especially in developing regions, is critical to many, including those on the ground aiding relief efforts. See also @TheMissingMaps project.
  • It has enabled an emerging industry to grow – OpenStreetMap has forever changed the way we look at geo-data and the technology surrounding it. This change in perspective has helped foster a growing number of geo-enabled companies.  Would companies like Boundless, CartoDB, Mapzen,  Mapbox, or Mapkin be as successful if OpenStreetMap wasn’t around? Maybe. Maybe not. What about the success of the Leaflet API, or the growth of FOSS4G? Would they have been as important in the geo and tech worlds if it wasn’t for OpenStreetMap? Probably, as they are both awesome. However, I believe that because of OpenStreetMap and all that it provides and all that it stands for, that these types of organizations, ideas, and companies will continue start-up and contribute positively to our profession.

So, let’s go back to the beginning of the post.  Why did I link the tweet from Bill about Mapzen’s latest efforts regarding Mapzen Search?  Well, I think their work, along with many others, is proof of how valuable OpenStreetMap really is and will continue to be. The OpenStreetMap community is maturing and the industry surrounding it is expanding. We have only seen the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the potential of OpenStreetMap and what it can do.  I look forward to being apart of what’s next.

You should too.

* sidenote, GPS came in a very close second

Honorable mentions for “Most Important thing in Geo” – GPS, QGIS, TIGER, ArcView 3.2, Landsat, Smartphones

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Long = X, Lat = Y – Free Illustration Included


Feel free to use this everywhere. Print it out and hang it on your wall.

My biggest geospatial pet peeve is when people confuse the relationship between x/y and lat/long. I believe this is a fundamental concept in geography and I am here to reintroduce you to math you probably learned in elementary school (middle school maybe?).  If you already know the proper x/y-long/lat relationship then you can skip the rest.

First, let’s review the Cartesian coordinate system.  The X axis is the horizontal plane and the Y axis is the vertical plane. Two dimensional.  Pretty simple.

Now, let’s look at latitude and longitude. Latitude measures angular distance from the equator to a point north or south of the equator. While longitude is an angular measure of east/west from the Prime Meridian.

Now this is the important part.

  • Latitude values increase or decrease along the vertical axis, the Y axis.
  • Longitude changes value along the horizontal access, the X axis.

Easy.  X = Longitude, Y = Latitude.  Now you will no longer be confused when calculating centroids or setting webmap coordinates.

Happy mapping!


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