Azavea Atlas

Maps, geography and the web

Azavea at the Do Good Data Conference

Last week, Tyler Dahlberg and I attended the Do Good Data Conference in Chicago, IL. The conference was a two-day extravaganza of workshops and talks geared towards nonprofit data geeks and professionals looking to learn new skills.

One of the sessions I found particularly insightful was hosted by Matthew Scharpnick of Elefint Designs. Matthew offered tips for effective data visualizations and creating infographics. He noted that raw data can deceive and how important context is. One of the case studies he brought up was the on-going debt ceiling debates during in 2012. At the time, there was a hot political debate about which party (and President) was responsible for running up budget deficits and debt. A graph chart of U.S. debt over time is one way to look at this — but there’s more nuance than simply political party in charge or President at the time. There’s even differences depending on whether the data is normalized by GDP, for example.

For example, if you only saw the chart on top left, you might think that U.S. debt is out of control and has never been higher. But if you look at debt as a percentage of GDP, you can see that in fact debt was higher in the 1940s during World Ward II.

So Elifint created an infographic to try to tell multiple stories and show context. Designers chose to symbolize the line by which party controlled the Presidency, House and Senate. Looking at President, it’s natural to infer that in recent times, Republican administrations appear to be more responsible for running up U.S. debt. But when Congress is added, that narrative becomes much more nuanced. Finally, by adding the recession periods to the graph (in gray), it becomes apparent that perhaps debt always increases after a recession, regardless of which party controls the Presidency or Congress.

It’s important to remember that data doesn’t teach us everything and it’s easy to miss the whole picture without the proper context. Matthew also stated the importance of direct labeling and telling a story — but noted that there doesn’t always have to be a linear story to each visualization — each person will see what they want to see. Moreover, he brought up the idea of “Return on Design” and mentioned crafting pieces that can be “productized” and reused.

Tyler and I also presented a session at the conference. We outlined the bike theft and pedestrian crash analysis we worked on at Azavea — offering numerous spatial analysis tips along the way. The workshop portion was devoted to a hands-on demo of QGIS mapping, including the QGIS2Leaf plugin. We also demonstrated web mapping in CartoDB, including setting up infowindows with Google Streetview images and the Torque library for animated heatmaps. We’ve posted the presentation and workshop instructions online and we hope to see everyone next year!

The Changing Map of the Arctic

When we think of geopolitical conflict quite a few areas come to mind, but one quite significant and often overlooked area is the Arctic. As the landscapes of the northern latitudes transform — most significantly due to climate change — geographers and mappers will have their work cut out for them recording those changes and helping to explain what they mean for the rest of the world.


Former Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell gave a talk about mapping the landscape of the Arctic at the 2015 Annual Association of American Geographers Conference on Tuesday in Chicago, IL. Treadwell has a long history of involvement with business and environmental interests in Alaska and the Arctic region. Prior to being elected Lt. Governor, he served on the United States Arctic Research Commission and managed the Exxon-Valdez oil spill response for Cordova, Alaska.

Changes in the geography of the Arctic related to climate change will have many profound impacts. For one, oil exploration is sure to increase with less sea ice to contend with. Bathymetric mapping explorations are continuing to cover more of the sea floor as well. As sea ice recedes, shipping channels are opening up, including a link between East Asia and Europe that previously required routing ships through the Panama Canal. These journeys can now be completed more efficiently and throughout a longer portion of each year by re-routing through the Arctic.

Climate change and shifting geography in the Arctic also has implications for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Russia has made it well-known that it would like to expand its territorial claim to the Arctic, and as Treadwell pointed out in his presentation, Russia is much further behind the U.S. in releasing scientific data to the public. Treadwell emphasized the need for a science agreement with Russia so that the data they collect be made available for research. As of late last year, Russia was planning to apply to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to expand its claim on the Arctic by about 463,000 square miles. This great graphic from The New York Times shows the current territorial claims from each nation with a border claim in the Arctic.

Finally, Treadwell emphasized the importance of maintaining place names and languages. There’s an incredible amount of data contained in historic place names. Alaska’s legislature recently made twenty native languages official, granting them parity with English.

Above all else, Treadwell urged geographers and the public at large to pay attention to what takes place in the Arctic, though it might seem far away to those living in the lower 48, it’s extremely important to our future.

“The beverages flowed as smoothly as the code”: A Productive 2015 OSGeo Philly Code Sprint

OSGeo Code Sprinters pose in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum's "Rocky Balboa" statue. Three cheers for open source!

OSGeo Code Sprinters pose in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum’s “Rocky Balboa” statue. Three cheers for open source! Photo credit Jody Garnett.

Last week, Philadelphia, Azavea, and our venue Friends Center hosted a code sprint where over 30 enthusiastic and creative “sprinters” met to collaborate on open source geospatial software projects. The OSGeo Code Sprint has been held annually for a while now, but this year’s event was bigger and better in ways that reflect the growth and increasing prominence of the open source geospatial community.

Code Sprinters enjoying the Philly-German bierhall  Brauhaus Schmitz

Code Sprinters enjoying the Philly-German bierhall Brauhaus Schmitz Photo credit Jody Garnett.

Over the last couple years, the LocationTech working group of the Eclipse Foundation has been emerging as a hub for high-performance geoprocessing and other location-aware technologies, such as Azavea’s GeoTrellis project. The new projects being incubated by LocationTech have been growing alongside continued participation in OSGeo and projects hosted there. Azavea is a huge supporter of both communities, as a member of LocationTech and a heavy user and contributor to many OSGeo projects. So, in hosting the 2015 OSGeo Code Sprint in Philadelphia, we wanted to be inclusive and specifically invite LocationTech projects to come participate in addition to OSGeo projects. We consider this coming together a success. LocationTech sponsored the event at the $2,500 Gold level. LocationTech projects like GeoTrellis, GeoMesa, and uDig were worked on alongside OSGeo projects like PostGIS, PDAL, and MapServer. At the end of the day, whichever software “foundation” a project is under, we’re all tackling the same problems and questions in GIS and can benefit from being at the same table in-person at a code sprint. Judging by initial responses on the OSGeo TOSprint mailing list, many others appreciated the additional camraderie as well.

AGI's Patrick Cozzi gives a  demo of Cesium.js, AGI's 3D globe library. AGI was a first-time Code Sprint sponsor this year. Photo credit Jody Garnett.

AGI’s Patrick Cozzi gives a demo of Cesium.js, AGI’s 3D globe library. AGI was a first-time Code Sprint sponsor this year. Photo credit Jody Garnett.

In addition to LocationTech, we had a tremendous array of support from sponsors at the code sprint. In fact, with 14 sponsors in all, we believe the 2015 Philly sprint to be the most-sponsored in OSGeo code sprint history. Many organizations had never sponsored a code sprint before, including LocationTech, Boundless, AGI, CartoDB, Mapzen, OpenSCG, and Typesafe. Other sponsors like Airborne Interactive, FOSSGIS eV, Coordinate Solutions, Farallon Geographics, Hobu, and Mobile Geographics are veteran code sprint sponsors and we were very glad to have their continued support for another sprint. Of note, OpenSCG and Typesafe are not necessarily geospatial-focused companies, but operate around related technologies of PostgreSQL and Scala which several open source geospatial projects are also based on. Their interest and generosity in supporting the sprint, we think, demonstrates how the importance of geospatial technologies – and open source geo, in particular – is increasing.

Sprinters getting into the swing of bowling at North Bowl. Photo credit Jody Garnett.

Sprinters getting into the swing of bowling at North Bowl. Photo credit Jody Garnett.

The generosity of our sponsors, and the OSGeo Board, allowed us to schedule an array of exciting evening activities to continue building community at night after coding in the day. On Tuesday, we took our sprinters on an exciting historic tour bus ride of Center City Philadelphia, so they could get a sense of our city of “Firsts”. Wednesday night’s affair was bowling and tater tots at acclaimed Philly hangout North Bowl – we’ve already heard several comments that bowling was a big hit with the sprinters! “I had a wonderful time, the venue was fantastic, the internet was plentiful, and the beverages flowed as smoothly as the code,” offered one sprinter.

Azavea's Kathryn Killebrew speaking about Torque animated maps from PostGIS. Photo credit Jody Garnett.

Azavea’s Kathryn Killebrew speaking about Torque animated maps from PostGIS. Photo credit Jody Garnett.

There was also plenty of learning and knowledge sharing with presentations throughout the week. AGI’s Patrick Cozzi showed us a few demos of the Cesium 3D globe library. CartoDB’s Andy Eschbacher gave a deep dive into CartoDB’s PostGIS-enabled wizardry including Torque animated maps. And Azavea’s own Kathryn Killebrew gave a preview of her presentation she will give this year at FOSS4G-NA, on how to use CartoDB’s Torque library outside of CartoDB to make spatio-temporally animated maps out of any PostGIS database.

A good sprint was had by all, and we are excited for the growth of the event and what it means for the open source geo community as a whole! If you’re interested or happen to be a code sprint organizer yourself, we also posted a detailed list of “lessons learned” on the OSGeo wiki.

Sprinting to Philadelphia: Azavea Hosting the 2015 OSGeo Code Sprint!

Open Source development is based on collaboration and communication, and yet a software project may have contributors strewn across the world in different time zones and even used to speaking different languages. The reality of collaborating via the Internet – asynchronous, textual – means it can be harder for new contributors to get up to speed, harder for experienced developers to help each other, and harder to develop features together. Being physically separated from your collaborators also inhibits growth of community and friendships.

2014 Vienna Code Sprint

A shot of the 2014 OSGeo Code Sprint. Come have fun with all these focused developers!

For a few years now, the OSGeo Foundation has alleviated these challenges and strengthened the global community of open source geospatial developers by supporting a “code sprint” in a different city each year. After the 2014 event was held in Vienna, it’s coming back across the pond.  This February 9th through 13th, Azavea will be pleased to host developers from around the world as they descend on Philadelphia for the 2015 OSGeo Code Sprint. This is the first time the Sprint has been held in Philly and we’re all excited to welcome everyone to our home – a real hotbed of civic hacking, open data, and geo nerd communities that often rely on these geospatial projects. We’re also planning a few fun evening activities in different parts of the city to give participants plenty of chances to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and experience Philly.

The Code Sprint is not like the “civic hackathons” and other events Azavea has organized in the past. Paul Ramsey, one of the core contributors to the PostGIS  project, wrote a bit about what the 2013 Boston Code Sprint was like and why you might want to attend. There won’t be competitive teams, prizes or judges like a hackathon. Instead of a short weekend, we will be sprinting together for most of a week. We’ll be improving and adding new features to the foundational geospatial tools common to pretty much any app with maps or geodata like PostGIS, Cesium, uDig, QGIS, GDAL, PDAL, and GeoTrellis. We’ll endeavor to achieve the same welcoming and friendly atmosphere we have at all our events, but if you’re interested in attending, this is definitely an event where preparation pays off. You can just show up and make a contribution, but if you’re not already contributing to a project, it will be more productive if you’ve learned a bit about the project, have a good handle on the languages in use, taken a look at the issue backlog, and have given some consideration to what contribution you’d like to make to it during the week. We’d also encourage you to have checked out the latest development branch and set up a development environment on your laptop in advance.

OSGeo Sprints in past years have been focused on projects specifically stewarded by the OSGeo Foundation and the event began as a gathering of the “C Tribe”, the software applications that use C as their primary language. However, this year we wanted to make the tent of open source geospatial a little bigger and encourage participants to work on all kinds of projects, including projects housed within LocationTech, OSGeo, or even independent projects like Leaflet or CartoDB.

So come join us in Philadelphia next month! Simply put your name on the list on the wiki page  so we can plan for you to be here, and book your travel – including a room at the Loew’s Philadelphia at our discounted rate. Open Source is usually a marathon, but let’s sprint while we can!

“It Started with a Map”: Second Annual LocationTech & GeoPhilly Conference

Conference attendees

Photo credit Delaware River Watershed Initiative

It’s hard to believe, but with the return of the much-expanded 2014 LocationTech Tour to Philadelphia this past November 20th, the GeoPhilly Meetup celebrated its first birthday! That means Sarah Cordivano and I have organized and hosted over 12 monthly GeoPhilly meetups over the past year, including ones with PhillyPUG, MaptimePHL, and even last year’s Geo Open Source conference. The event last year was so well attended and enjoyed that we decided to bring back this larger showcase and celebration of the Philly open source geospatial community again.

Old City's Arch Street Quaker Meeting House

Old City’s Arch Street Quaker Meeting House

We kept the venue, the beautifully historic Arch Street Meeting House, and much of the same format with a slate of several talks on a weekday afternoon and a trip to the bar afterwards to hang out with fellow map nerds.

Michael Brennan of Secondmuse

Our Keynote speaker this year, Mike Brennan from SecondMuse, “zoomed out” a bit away from our map-mania and had us examine some of the broader human elements and social structures of open source collaboration in which we develop our map-based tools. I had the good fortune to work more with SecondMuse this year on Al Jazeera’s Canvas hackathon, and it was exciting to hear more about the other projects SecondMuse is involved in globally that advance civic impact through open source collaboration. That’s a goal held close by many in our geospatial community as well.

Ingrid Burrington of Mapzen

Up next was Ingrid Burrington from Mapzen, who kept us asking questions about how we collaborate – in this case, how we all decide what to call where we are. Specifically, her talk was on gazetteers and geocoding in open source; how both of these are still hard problems to figure out; and how open source administrative and political boundary data can help.

Ryan Arana and Josh Yaganeh of Esri

Ryan Arana and Josh Yaganeh came all the way from Esri’s Portland R&D center and gave a talk on a new open source tool they built, is useful for playing with and inspecting GeoJSON data sent over HTTP, and uses some cool technologies in the form of WebSockets and Go.

Lauren Ancona, our first Philly “civic hacker” of the day and who recently started as a Data Scientist at the City, spoke next about her obsession with parking data and mapping parking rules in Philadelphia using open source. She encouraged us to try and help out with, and fielded some inspiring and candid questions about what it’s like being a beginner in maps and civic hacking and how to keep getting better at it.

Our second local civic hacking (or civic mapping?) project was presented by James Tyack. His project is also based around transportation and crowdsourcing reports like Lauren’s parking projects, but focuses on accessibility for city dwellers with disabilities, who often have considerable barriers to getting around town every day. James shocked us with examples of how even mapping apps aimed at accessibility concerns can even be inaccessibly designed themselves – a concern which Sarah recently blogged about.

Azavea’s own Rob Emanuele gave the penultimate talk of the evening on recent improvements to GeoTrellis – our high performance processing library for very large raster data – that take advantage of Apache Spark to process data stored in Accumulo. The combination can serve map tiles from very complex datasets like land cover types for the whole USA, or global climate change models very quickly for snappy web applications.

Matt Amato of AGI's Cesium team

Our final talk of the evening was by Matt Amato from AGI, who spoke about the Cesium project and gave examples of the power inherent in time-dynamic geospatial visualizations. As geographers focused on visualizing place, we sometimes have more trouble visualizing time. Web geodata formats like GeoJSON and KML don’t always make the best accommodations for temporal data, and that’s where Cesium’s CZML standard comes in. Matt wowed us with WWI battle maps and car traffic simulations incorporating an aspect of time.

After a set of talks this cool, our group was excited to head to the Buffalo Billiards bar to talk about what we had learned. We had 94 attendees come for the afternoon – 1 more than last year! – and even more show up for the evening. It has been a fun first year with the GeoPhilly community and I’m looking forward to the next twelve months as we continue growing in numbers, skills, and maps!