Britta Ricker: “Think about who the data is representing, and who is missing”

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?

A: During my PhD (and I think others would agree) we are told the job market is tough, and it really is. When I got my first tenure track position out of my PhD, after being a single mom for 2 years, I was over the moon thrilled. During my PhD, I taught myself a lot of programming. I learned javascript and made maps with Leaflet, I made an iPad app for my daughter, I had a blast. I was doing these things because they were fun and to advance my cartography chops. This really set me apart on the job market, and in the moment was pretty shocked to get job offers so quickly at the end of my PhD because of all of the discouraging things people say about academia and the academic job market. Their comments made it feel like it is nearly impossible to find a tenure track job. If you are open to living anywhere, there are jobs available.

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.

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