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.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 calendar: Chris Van Pollard

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: What’s up! I’m Chris, and I’ve been making maps and tinkering with GIS for over 19 years in the GIS Department at a Regional Planning Commission in the City of Brotherly Love (Philly, Philly!). I spend most of my days focusing on all aspects of geospatial technology, cartography, spatial thinking, and hacking away at web maps. I’m a huge ice hockey and coffee enthusiast, which helps fuel that passion to learn and improve my cartography and web mapping skills. Since 2012, I’ve been an adjunct professor at Rowan University, in Southern New Jersey, teaching young minds about GIS, the mystifying transformations of map projections, and cartographic design.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: This map allowed me to combine my passion and love for ice hockey with that of cartography. I was inspired by the amazing work, map design, and GIS tools that carto-wizards John Nelson, Ken Fields, and Johan Adkins have been sharing with us lately. John’s series on Air Mile Index  gave me the initial idea that I wanted to map how far each NHL team travels throughout the season. I wanted to determine if there was a correlation between performance (wins) and how much travel affects the players throughout the season. I was able to find the 2017-2018 NHL Travel Super Schedule in a user-friendly spreadsheet listing all the games for the season. Next, I added the Latitudes and Longitudes for all of the “Home” game teams, and included a sequence/order so that I could generate an Origin/Destination pairing between games. Once I had the data prepared, I utilized ArcMap’s XY-to-Line Tool to generate the paths. I wanted to learn more about the layout tools and capabilities in ArcGIS Pro, so I decided that I would make this map within that platform. Before diving into this project, my ArcGIS Pro skills were limited, but through this process I was able to learn, fail, try again, and have fun while doing it.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: Shapefiles, Shapefiles, and more Shapefiles. This map was made using ArcGIS Pro with a little data creation assistance from ArcMap. The symbology and transparency tools in ArcGIS Pro are incredibly exciting to work with, making map creation fun. I used Adobe Illustrator to create the Old School hockey mask to add that extra flair. Initially I needed to create a point shapefile, then I used the hockey mask as a marker symbol layer in Pro to allow me to adjust its transparency so that it faded into the basemap.

 

Maps and mappers of the 2019 calendar: Tom Chadwin

Q: Tell us about yourself

A: I live in deepest rural Northumberland, close to the England-Scotland border. I studied Middle Irish at university (coincidentally becoming friends there with Richard Fairhurst of OpenStreetMap fame), and then started work as a printer (not a successful one). I worked as a web designer in the days of version 3 of both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, and then a web developer in the days of classic ASP, before .NET was invented. I’ve been in the public sector for over fifteen years now, most of them at Northumberland National Park, working on networking and open-source telephony, among many other things. We made the switch from MapInfo to QGIS many years ago now, and have never looked back.

I got involved with QGIS when I started to help out with the plugin qgis2leaf by Riccardo Klinger. Since then, I created qgis2web, which I still develop and maintain. I try to help out with QGIS and OSGeo events in the UK, and co-chaired FOSS4GUK 2018 with James Milner. Please come along to FOSS4GUK 2019 in Edinburgh this autumn!


Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know)

A: In 2018, our local council proposed the closure of our local first school. Our daughter was in her last year at this amazing place, so we resisted. I thought that some striking maps might help our case, so I made one map of the proposed increase in journey-to-school time (below), and a second map of the signatories to the petition to save the school. The signatories map is the February 2019 GeoHipster map:

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The map was built almost entirely in QGIS. I used GIMP to add the tilt-shift blur, and because of this blur, I had to use GIMP for the text as well. The data was scant to the point of naivety, being simply the postcodes of around 400 petition signatories.

The idea behind the map was to try to use this scant data in an emotive way, in what was an emotive argument. Visual appeal was of greater importance than spatial analysis, which is just as well, since I’m no spatial analyst. The scant data and the intent to grab attention led to my using the height of the styled points to denote not number of signatories, but proximity to the school. My hope was that this visualized how highly localized the support for the school was, a fact not immediately apparent from the raw data.

Technically, the overriding technique and principle behind the map is the separation of data from style. No processing at all was done on the data, which was a necessity because I was designing the map while the petition was still gathering signatures, so the data was changing all the time. All the heavy lifting is done by QGIS geometry generators, creating squares around the points, rotating and skewing them into faux perspective, and then extruding them into 2.5D symbols.

I had a huge amount of help from the Twitter carto community, without which I simply could not have built the map. I wrote about both maps in much greater detail on my website: tom.chadw.in/wrote/MappingEmotion.

The school was saved from closure, but further unwanted changes to our rural schools are ongoing, and the fight continues. Who knows whether this map had any effect on the Council, but it did result in a very old friend describing it as the “worst game of Risk ever”.

Maps and mappers of the 2019 calendar: Kenneth Field, Cover

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m Ken, I’m a bit of a cartonerd. For the last 8 years I’ve allowed Esri to pay me to work for them. Technically I’m a ‘Senior Software Product Engineer’ but more informally I make maps, write about maps, talk about maps, teach about making maps and generally make myself a nuisance wherever there’s an opinion to be shared about, you guessed it, maps. Prior to working for the California-based Geogoliathon I spent around 20 years as an academic in UK universities teaching cartography, GIS, and geography. I’ve recently had a book published called (wait for it) Cartography. And developed a free Massive Open Online Course (#cartoMOOC) on the same subject which we’ve taught to 70,000 people and counting. My passion and profession align in my geo-lifestyle. I blog at cartonerd, and the ICA Commission on Map Design, and tweet @kennethfield. I play the drums (badly), like riding my snowboard in the mountains (with map-themed helmet, goggles and jacket of course), and for my sins I am an avid supporter of Nottingham Forest FC.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: I’m always looking for interesting mapping themes. Normally these would involve the search for digital data that has to be persuaded and cajoled into some sort of map. I like to show people how to make great maps, sometimes just solid techniques done well, other times something a bit weird and wonderful to push the envelope, break a few rules and get creative. But I also like to use different mediums for making a map whether using Lego, pen and ink or…cheese. And these sort of maps are the ones that tend to stick in the memory because they’re different. They don’t conform. I was inspired by a map of English biscuits made by Chris Wesson a couple of years ago. It was a map of the UK with pictures of all sorts of tasty biscuits, where they were from and a little of their history. It was a great map but I couldn’t help think Chris might have actually made a large map as some sort of tablecloth and put real biscuits on top. And that’s when I thought of taking the basic idea and applying the concept to the UK cheese. Cartography is often about stealing ideas and then fashioning something new or interesting out of them and, so, I set about thinking through the map. It was an obvious approach really – I’d need a cheese board. I’d need it in the shape of the UK. And on top I’d place a selection of fine, rare, important or bizarre cheese. I’d take a picture and then people will eat the map…and the map would disappear. It’d be a one-time edible map. I researched the history of UK cheese production. I sought to identify a good geographical mix and from a list of around 400 cheeses I whittled it down to around 30 which would fit on a map.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The map was fairly simple in design – just ceremonial counties of the UK. I made it in ArcGIS Pro and exported it as an svg file. By now I’d realised that I didn’t have the tools or experience to whittle the wood myself. I found a great craftsman called Andrew Abbott who had a CNC router and laser engraver. He took my design and made the map out of laminated blocks of Maple. We discussed all sorts of design aspects. He advised on what would work typographically at the scale of the final board. I was also planning on making the Isle of Man into a hole in the board but he suggested bits of cheese would simply fall through and get stuck…so I adapted the design accordingly. I also needed to do some really hefty generalisation on the coastline and internal boundaries so the laser engraver would work well – there simply wasn’t the space for overly complicated linework. It was a really good process to work together to ensure the design would work in the medium he was crafting.

I ended up with a cheese board around a metre tall and nearly as wide. Space for around 30-40 pieces of cheese. Sourcing the cheese wasn’t as simple as nipping to the local supermarket. The selection simply isn’t broad enough and some of the hard to get cheeses had to be sourced from niche artisanal suppliers. Some cheese was out of production (being seasonal), some impossible to source and some just not available in a quantity that would work. I eventually used a series of suppliers, had the cheese sent to my brother’s house in the UK as close to its eventual use as possible. I boarded a flight to the UK with my cheese board well packaged as excess baggage. It arrived in the UK undamaged. My brother drove the cheese to London from his home in Lincolnshire the day before it was to be displayed and I got the board and cheese across London to the Geovation hub one evening in September 2018 to display at the #geomob event. Cheese unwrapped, positioned according to a geographical list I’d prepared to ensure I didn’t make a mess of locating each piece, added a few labels and some context and sat back to watch a hungry crowd devour it. I wrote up a more extensive blog about the map here and there’s a bit on the GeoHipster blog here.

What next? Well, I quite like craft beer and there’s definitely geo in that. And someone suggested whiskey, except I can’t stand the stuff. Never have been able to drink it after a very unfortunate incident in my younger days. That’s another story entirely.

 

Maps and mappers of the 2018 calendar: Kate Keeley

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I always thought I was going to be a scientist and had a brief stint as researcher and field biologist. Then I decided I liked communicating science to the public more, and worked as an interpretive park ranger and zoo education specialist. And then I discovered GIS and the rest was history. With GIS, I found a tool that combined my technical side with my eye for design and an opportunity to communicate complex subjects in new and innovative ways.

A recent master’s graduate from the University of Michigan, I now work as a GIS consultant for an environmental consulting firm in Michigan and I couldn’t be happier. Say hi to @pokateo_ on Twitter (that’s po-kate-o like potato. Get it? I like potatoes)! Or mosey over to my website at https://kateberg.github.io/ to learn more about my journey.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: I stumbled across the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being reports and immediately thought of making a map using a scale of happy to sad faces (sort of inspired by recently reading John Nelson’s suggestion in his latest ArcGIS blog post to use Chernoff faces for symbology). A quick Google search of PNG faces led me immediately to a bunch of cutouts of celebrity faces and I knew that’s what I wanted to use. I found faces with a variety of different emotions, from smiling to meh to frowning to crying and played around with a scale that made sense to me.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: I worked in ArcGIS Pro. I used my cubic tessellations I created for another project (also inspired by John Nelson. This time his Electo-Cubo-Grams) as the base (that was a whole other challenge; trying to fit all the states into a general US shape was quite difficult). With my base layers from that project, each state had its own point. Then, I uploaded the face PNGs as the point symbology for each state and went from there.

I was really excited by how it was shaping up, but I shared it with a couple of friends and they weren’t too keen on it. They said it [was] actually quite frightening:

(https://kateberg.github.io/img/Wellbeing/wellbeing1.png)

They said I should stop what I was doing and burn it with fire.

I was undeterred. Perhaps I was blind or a bit abstracted, but I still thought what I was doing was pretty cool.

I played with different ways to make the heads less creepy:

https://kateberg.github.io/img/Wellbeing/wellbeing2.png

https://kateberg.github.io/img/Wellbeing/wellbeing3.png

https://kateberg.github.io/img/Wellbeing/wellbeing4.png

https://kateberg.github.io/img/Wellbeing/wellbeing5.png

I noticed that the overall pattern of states’ well-being changed depending on the component (e.g. purpose, social, financial), so I wanted to find a way to include those patterns, without making the map look extra complicated (or creepy as it were). I found using the colored circles on the right to be a great way to provide a quick glance of the interesting patterns! Overall, I think the final result came out pretty neat and I’m very proud of it being selected for the GeoHipster Calendar!  You can read more at: https://kateberg.github.io/portfolio/wellbeing.html