Azavea Atlas

Maps, geography and the web

For the Love of Maps

nacis_2014_pittsburghLast week, Data Analytics Project Manager Sarah Cordivano and I attended the North American Cartographic Information Society conference in beautiful Pittsburgh. After searching around for some of the best GIS and mapping related conferences to attend, NACIS was one of the mostly highly recommended, and I think it lived up to its reputation.

The conference started off with Practical Cartography Day, an entire day of sessions devoted to real-life examples of map-making. The talks touched on a diverse array of topics in mapping, which made it particularly valuable. If these talks were scheduled on topic-area specific tracks, I probably would have missed some interesting examples and discussions. One of my favorite speakers on Practical Cartography Day, John Nelson, offered his 20 Unrequested Map Tips. It’s really great advice for those just starting out in cartography, especially in academia, where often the ArcGIS defaults are the only thing taught. It made me reflect on how important user interface and design is to cartography and how that education is really lacking within today’s GIS programs.

Some other sessions and talks that were particularly good:

    • Alan McConchie of Stamen Design gave out a bunch of good tips for manipulating custom CartoCSS. It’s a must-see for anyone who uses Tilemill and wants to learn some cool tricks for customization.

    • Exemplifying the challenge of customizing maps, Nicki Dlugash of Mapbox talked about the design challenges in creating a basemap of the entire world styled optimally at all zoom levels using OpenStreetMap data.

    • Though not strictly map-related, Miles Barger of the US National Park Service presented on a recent project to create a 3D model of the Grand Staircase, a major geologic feature in Utah. He touched on the need to “fiddle” with settings to create the perfect diagram and also started a bit of controversy (mostly from one attendee) when he suggested it’s okay to manipulate or exaggerate features for the purpose of creating a user-friendly design.



  • Also of the US National Park Service, Mamata Akella presented on the beautiful custom maps and tools the park service has been working on. They’ve put everything on GitHub (except the internal stuff, of course).

  • Patrick Kennelly, of Long Island University, showed the results of using a three dimensional helix model to visualize daily temperature data over time at over 250 weather stations across the US. Patrick and his team used the Blender API for data manipulation.

  • During the Transportation Maps session, Nate Wessel, student at the University of Cincinnati, presented his bicycle map of the Cincinnati area. Contrary to the typical government produced bike map based on subjectivity of conditions, Nate based his map on more objective conditions agnostic to the type of rider, such as elevation change, speed limit, and road condition. Nate’s map was also a runner up for the student competition.

In addition to attending the conference, Sarah and I also presented on some topics of personal interest. I introduced General Transit Feed Specification data and gave some examples of how to the data is being used in mapping and analysis today. Sarah talked about the importance of open data and open source tools which brought up a lively discussion of how the issue relates to cartography and spatial analysis. Overall, the conference had a nice balance between real-world and academic examples of cartography and analysis. Next year, the conference will be in Minneapolis and it’s definitely a must attend for anyone who loves maps.


LocationTech Tour coming to Philly!

A few weeks ago, we kicked off the brand new GeoPhilly meetup group.  Check out our blog post introducing the new meetup. GeoPhilly unites developers, geographers, data geeks, open source enthusiasts, civic hackers and map addicts in our shared love of maps and the facts they visualize and stories they tell.


Additionally, the past couple of months have been an exciting time for open source at Azavea. In case you missed it, we are proud to announce Azavea has joined the Eclipse Foundation and its new working group, LocationTech! We are glad to be joined by Boundless (formerly OpenGeo), Google and others and hope we can make LocationTech a thriving hub for commercially-friendly open source geospatial software.

GeoPhilly and LocationTech are welcoming the LocationTech kick-off Tour to Philadelphia on November 13th! LocationTech members will be visiting 6 Northeastern cities in Canada and the US for day-long events, talks and happy hours all about open source geo projects. Philadelphia’s event is the 2013 Geo Open Source Conference.  We’ll be hosting an afternoon conference with in-depth talks and an evening social event with lightning talks featuring speakers from the City of Philadelphia, Rackspace, OpenPlans, CCRI, our own staff at Azavea and others.   Speakers will discuss a variety of topics including GeoTrellis, Walkshed.js, OpenTreeMap, GeoJSON for Github, GeoMesa and geojson.js.

We would love to see you there, so please register now! If you can’t make it to Philly, do consider attending the other Tour stops in Ottawa, Montreal, Boston, New York or DC.

New Federal Open Data Policy Conference in DC

This is a slightly modified cross-post from the Data Transparency Coalition’s blog.

Data Transparency conference banner

Azavea has been a huge supporter of the open data community for years now, and Sarah Cordivano and I are excited to announce we will be exhibiting at the first ever Data Transparency 2013 conference on Sept. 10th in Washington, DC. Quality data is at the forefront of almost every geospatial analysis project and software product we release, and open data makes our work that much easier and more powerful. As the federal government transforms information currently locked in static documents into open data – standardized, structured, and freely available – we are be able to use that data to create new platforms that deliver geography-based insights for citizens, business, and policymakers. As a B Corporation, open data is also important to our company’s civic mission because we believe it contributes to better government and a more engaged citizenry.

We frequently participate in and sponsor open data and civic hacking events like NASA’s Space Apps, the Sunlight Foundation’s TransparencyCamp, and Random Hacks of Kindness. Years ago, we took it upon ourselves to build, which is still used by our hometown City of Philadelphia as its official open data catalog, and was part of an “Open Data Race” effort to get more organizations advocating for open data. The underlying OpenDataCatalog open source project has been adopted in cities like San Diego and others.

Key products of ours that we will be showcasing at the Data Transparency conference both use and create open data. OpenTreeMap is our open source crowdsourced tree inventory and public engagement platform for urban forestry, which lets ordinary citizens with smartphones map trees in their city, creating open data that can be analyzed for environmental benefits and help us visualize and understand the importance and value of trees and green infrastructure.

Our Cicero API allows advocacy groups and other organizations to easily match the addresses of their constituents with the districts of elected officials and contact information essential to our democracy. And DistrictBuilder also aims to make the process of political redistricting more open and collaborative. The more levels of government that open key political data and information in machine readable formats, the easier it is for us to improve our Cicero and DistrictBuilder tools for use by advocacy groups and citizens themselves.

We look forward to joining other members of the growing federal open data community at the conference in two weeks. See you there!

Trees & People: ISA 2013

Our software projects at Azavea range from the political to the criminal to the spatial, so it’s not unusual to find Azaveans attending a wide variety of conferences to discuss our work and learn about the latest technology. Since we began work on OpenTreeMap and other urban forestry projects, I’ve been fortunate to take part in several tree related events. Earlier this week, I headed off to Toronto to attend the 89th annual conference of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA).

While I unfortunately arrived too late to see the International Tree Climbing Championship (there’s one thing we don’t have at tech conferences…), I heard some great presentations on very diverse topics. That variety in subject matter was one of the most appealing elements of the conference and a major reason I decided to attend. From information on urban forestry experiences in Europe to the biomechanics of trees to utility forestry, ISA ended up being a great opportunity to gain familiarity with many aspects of arboriculture. There was even a Climbers’ Corner (see photo on left) where arborists discussed topics related to tree climbing.

Perhaps one of my favorite sessions was Dr. Karl Niklas’s keynote speech on “What We Don’t Know about Tree Biomechanics.” I initially was hesitant about an address whose subtitle included the phrase “Why Trees Fall Down,” but Dr. Niklas’s presentation on tree stability and growth ended up being one of those lectures where you’re almost too busy laughing and listening to realize how much science you’re also learning. I also enjoyed Dr. Greg McPherson’s session on the “Life-Cycle Assessment of the Million Trees LA Program,” which analyzed whether that planting project, when viewed using a cradle-to-grave approach, was a net carbon sink or carbon source. Ecosystem benefit calculations of urban street trees are a critical aspect of Azavea’s urban forestry work, and I’m excited to see how the algorithms can be further refined and improved to include more elements of the tree’s entire life cycle.

As with many conferences, ISA also provided opportunities to finally meet people I had previously only known from phone calls and emails.  I’m part of the Urban Tree Growth and Longevity Working Group, which holds its annual meeting during the conference. It was great to meet many of the people from the group and the connected Urban Tree Monitoring Protocol project. As a shameless plug, the Working Group is a great initiative for those looking to be more involved in gathering data related to tree development and mortality in urban settings. More info is available on our website.

UTGL Field Trip

The UTGL Field Trip included a stop at Ontario Highway 401 to view trees planted as part of a study by researchers at The Ohio State University.

While software wasn’t a huge component of many of the sessions, the research on topics such as the ecosystem benefits of street trees, urban tree canopy assessments, and tree maintenance costs may influence how we develop the calculations and overall user experience of our forestry software. ISA and other tree related conferences are one way for the urban forestry team at Azavea to learn more about the state of art research happening in the field. We’ll be at a couple more tree conferences in 2013, and I’m looking forward to learning more about new developments in arboriculture.

What I’m Loving About Digital Humanities This Month

It’s been a month since I returned from a trip to South by Southwest Interactive where I was fortunate to be part of a fun panel on “Why Digital Maps Can Reboot Cultural History.” Has it taken me a whole month to recover from four days in Austin? Nope, I’m just lucky enough to have spent the last few weeks being busy with a number of digital humanities (DH) events and projects. Libraries/archives/museums/technology ended up being one of my themes for March, and that’s a theme I can always get behind.

Full scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope on display at SXSW.

For the past few years, there has been a small but strong contingent of library, archives, and museum (LAM) people at SXSW. Along with checking out the newest 3D printers at SXSW Create and visiting the full-scale model of NASA’s Webb Space Telescope, I also had the chance to attend some fantastic panels related to technology and its use in and by cultural institutions. Perhaps one of the most engaging was the “Culture Hack: Libraries and Museums Open For Making” panel with representatives from Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America, CLIR Digital Library Federation, and the Open Knowledge Foundation. I’m very excited for the imminent launch of the Digital Public Library of America on April 18 and intrigued by the possibilities for linking collections in order to support wider usage of current and historical materials.

Beyond the “official” SXSW sessions, I dropped by the ER&L + ProQuest #ideadrop house for more casual conversations with librarians and others interested in the combination of technology and cultural heritage materials. The house was a bit away from downtown Austin, but it was worth the trek for the great discussion on open source tools for cultural institutions. Unexpectedly stumbling upon the delicious food at a Korean/Mexican fusion food truck didn’t hurt either.

That collaboration and sharing of ideas is one of my favorites parts of the LAM and digital humanities culture.  Thankfully, we have an active DH community here in Philly so hearing about new innovations isn’t limited to annual conferences or only reading Twitter announcements. The Greater Philadelphia Digital Humanities Group (PhillyDH for short) partially grew out of THATCamp Philly, an unconference held in Philadelphia each fall that provides individuals with a place to discuss ideas and develop possible collaborations. I’ve been involved in THATCamp Philly for awhile and am happy to see the initiative expanding. Even though PhillyDH is just a few months old, the group has already held a Digital Project Incubator event with a PhillyDH@Penn workshop/conference day planned for June 4 and other workshops and events coming soon. PhillyDH is a decentralized organization (meaning we’re not linked to any particular institution) and anyone is welcome to join.

Other local Philly professional groups are also focusing more on how technology intersects with their work. Continuing with the “March = DH” theme, I gave a presentation at the March meeting of the Delaware Valley Archivists Group on the digital metrics we gather for, the website that provides access to the historic photographs of the Philadelphia City Archives. We’re data geeks here at Azavea so we’ve implemented three different systems for tracking how people use PhillyHistory. That makes for a lot of data, which can be both useful and overwhelming. Evaluation of digital projects and user engagement seems to be a key issue as more organizations explore expanding their online and mobile presence. After we build these amazing digital projects, how do we actually measure whether they are meeting our intended goals? The group had some intriguing questions, and I’m interested to see the best practices and standards that will develop as the DH field wrestles with project evaluation.

Along with a few other DH related things, we ended March and kicked off April with an announcement of our recent Small Business Innovation Research award from the National Science Foundation to develop the Temporal Geocoder, a web-based tool that will enable historians, scholars, the public, and others to assign geographic locations to historical materials. After geocoding thousands of photographs for, I can tell you all about the fun of finding the location of an address that no longer exists (I’m looking at you – portions of E. Noble Street!). With a large spatial component to many DH projects, we’re hoping a temporal geocoder will fit well with the work being done at the New York Public Library, OpenStreetMap, and other organizations around historic locations.

Temporal geocoders, historic digital maps, linked data repositories, and user evaluation metrics are just the start of what I’m finding interesting about DH these days. Gaming, user generated content, and digital storytelling are high on my list of topics to explore next. Perhaps April will need to be another month of digital humanities…