Geography is important, no matter what the commenter says

I usually don’t respond to comments on my blog post, but I feel the need to respond to a couple items from a recent comment posted on everyone’s favorite article on this blog. Before I start my response let me say that I agree with some parts of the comment, which I will discuss later.  However, I really disagree with other passages and I’ll talk about those first.

But first, the comment…

From Chris, posted on 6/18/2013

“ESRI days are numbered. The place is a sinking ship. They have totally lost control of both the gis data and software monopoly they once had back in the 80s and 90s.

Open Street Maps and QGIS are hammering ESRI now. You can’t give away ArcGIS since EVERYTHING is free with other gis packages and data.
There are so many map apps and programs that BEAT ESRI at their own game. Newer and easier ones are popping up faster everyday now.

A person off the street can make a cool mash-up using QGIS and geoJSON.
If you are really map challenged there is:

And there is NO need for a degree in Geography to make maps anymore! This field of study is basically dead and has been bypassed in the last few years. Colleges need to stop teaching it since the public uses digital maps everyday now and are getting daily geography lessons for free!

ESRI better be shopping themselves around before Google adds massive gis tools to Google Earth and finishes them off. This multibillion dollar company will be worth nothing in a few years at the rate of free map tool and data advancement.
Sounds like not too many smart people are left at ESRI since most have left to go to start ups. ArcMap 10 basically validates this.

And the way Open Source is going, their won’t be to many companies left that will be able to demand thousands for their software. Especially bad software. ESRIs biggest customer, which is the U.S. Government, is slowly waking up to this fact. The Gov needs to save our tax dollars and go more to the free open source software ASAP.”

Now, my response:

The “open vs. commercial GIS” mentality is getting old.  I am getting sick of it, and you should be too.

We should all be vested in the development of GIS as a science, as a tool set, and as a way of thinking, whether it is commercial or free, open or closed.  GIS is aided by the growth of both free and open source and commercial software. It is pretty well known that the commercial sector now has real competition and they need to respond. This is a good thing.  Saying that open source GIS is going to kill commercial GIS software is like saying that Linux has killed Windows or PostgreSQL killed Oracle. These commercial GIS shops are embedded deep in many organizations and they aren’t going to be dropping them any time soon. That is a choice that they made, and when the business case dictates a change they will make it.

Now, will organizations who are new to GIS or at a point of transition choose to go with open source platforms that are light-weight, reliable, and free and easy to use when they design their next implementation? Probably. I would, especially if cost was a factor.

The more scientists, engineers, planners, civic leaders, decision makers, concerned citizens, business leaders and educators who use GIS the better it is for GIS community as whole. The GIS community should be working together to move technology forward – not digging trenches and setting in for battle.  It is a horribly counter productive strategy.  Any users of GIS, online mapping, or spatial analysis would logically want the field to grow and evolve. Competition helps drive that growth and evolution and I am all for it.

And, why do people keep saying/thinking that Google should buy Esri, or that Google Earth is going to overtake ArcMap? I’ve never understood this argument. Never. Why would Google, who has really failed at commercializing their current geo-stack, go after such a small market when compared to their other endeavors?  If you were a smart company that makes a lot of money what market would you focus on as revenue driver? Millions and millions of mobile users, or a few thousand specialized (and picky) GIS software users?  How many of you are paying for Google Maps or have bought Google Earth Pro? Not many? That’s what I thought.  Let’s just drop this train of thought.

Now for the second statement in the comment that drives me absolutely crazy:

And there is NO need for a degree in Geography to make maps anymore! This field of study is basically dead and has been bypassed in the last few years. Colleges need to stop teaching it since the public uses digital maps everyday now and are getting daily geography lessons for free!

This statement is so horribly misguided I don’t even know how to respond.

Let’s try. There is a calculator on every computer and smartphone made, and we use them all the time.  Does this mean we need to eliminate math as a discipline at the university level?  Anyone can download a content management system and build a website.  Time to get rid of computer science departments!  Turbo Tax! Get rid of accounting majors! WebMD. Who needs pre-med?

See where I am going with this? Just because a tool exists does not mean that a particular discipline should be eradicated.  You still need some background to understand what you are looking at.

I have three degrees in geography.  A bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. .  During those years of schooling and research I did far more than make maps and use online mapping tools.  Geographers study far more than just cartography and learn about place names, check out my dissertation for proof.

Geographers have been crucial in the development of the theory, logic, and science behind the G in GIS.  The field of geography has also provided countless contributions to spatial analysis, policy and planning, environmental science, economics, anthropology, sociology, biology, civil engineering, and many more and will continue to so.  In fact, we need more geography being taught at all education levels.

Geography matters. It always has and it always will.

To say that geography doesn’t matter displays a lack of understanding that is all to common in the GIS community.  Sometimes I am floored with the lack of understanding of the basic principles and fundamentals of geography among those who use GIS, online mapping tools, or any other type of spatial decision making system.  Without a basic foundation in geography how do you expect to make the correct decisions using a GEOGRAPHIC information system?  I’m not saying that everyone who uses GIS needs a Ph.D. in geography, but taking a couple geography courses during your undergraduate years isn’t going to hurt.

Now, what do I agree with from the comment?

  • Governments need to invest more resources in free and open source software of any type.  No excuses.
  • You don’t need a degree in geography to make a map, but it sure does help
  • OpenStreetMap is great, but let’s not forget where a majority of the US data came from in the early uploads (TIGER).
  • I love QGIS.

That’s enough for this post.  I didn’t do a god job summarizing my thoughts at the end, but it is getting late and I want to go to bed. More rambling and ranting will come in later posts

As always, thanks for reading.

Google Maps API v2 Deprecation and Mash-Ups

The old news on the street is that the Google Maps API v2 will be deprecated in just a few weeks in May 19th 2013.  I have a few old Google mash-ups that I never upgraded to v3 of the API that are floating around this site and I will retire those pages when the time comes.

However, one of my v2 mash-ups is a nifty transparency slider that I modified to work with WMS data.  I will be updating that site to v3 of the API before the last days of v2.  I’ve been saying that I was going to upgrade this app to v3 for a while now and I should probably do that soon.  Nothing like the deprecation of a API to get you motivated to write some code!

For more info on the v2 deprecation and a whole bunch of Google Maps news visit the Google Geo Developers Blog.


Awkward Geo-Coding

Back in the “old” days (2004-2007) I used to do a lot of geo-data cleaning for municipalities and county governments across the northeast for the consulting firm I was working for.  I was mostly cleaning address ranges on centerline datasets, checking road directionality and working on parcel addressing.  It wasn’t glamorous work, but it served an important purpose for the clients.  If the work I was doing was wrong, the services within the municipality could suffer, and I didn’t want to be the guy who messed-up.

I used to take a lot of pride in getting addressing correct or generating datasets of important locations within local municipality. Whenever I see a bad geo-code or a misplaced placemark in an online mapping service I simultaneously cringe and chuckle.  It isn’t easy work to build these massive databases and for the most part they are  remarkably correct. However, every now and then, an error creeps through.  For example, my parents home address registers three miles from where it actually is located when using the Google Maps, however Bing, OSM, and the municipality’s local online mapping tool all place it in the correct location.

There is also the issue of bad placemarkers across the worldwide web of mapping.  I particularly enjoyed what I believe to be a bad placemarker that I found the other day. I work in downtown Boston and I’m often using Google Maps to search for directions to restaurants, bars, friends places, etc.  For some reason that escapes me, I was map-browsing around Fenway Park when I came across a strange placemarker a few dozen rows up from home plate on the third base side:

image credit - Google 2013
image credit – Google 2013


I’ve walked around Fenway many times in my life.  I was just over there a couple weeks ago and I didn’t notice this establishment (neither has Bing or OSM).  Maybe this is a new venture by the Fenway Sports Group to keep disgruntled Red Sox fans at the park during a prolonged losing streak? Perhaps this is a new type of viral marketing campaign? I don’t know if this placemark is correct or not, but I found it hilarious.  As of 1/27/2013 the map still had the unique placemark, but if it is wrong I believe it won’t be online much longer, especially if Larry Lucchino sees it.

Here is the full screen grab of the park taken on 1/27/2013 with the exciting new business on Yakwey Way:

image credit: Google 2013
image credit: Google 2013

When clicking on placemarker you get this interesting balloon:

image credit: Google 2013
image credit: Google 2013

As I have mentioned before, building and maintaining these massive address and placemarker datasets is tough work and if you have ever done it you know what I am talking about.  But this brings up a larger question.  Have you ever encountered an awkward geo-code?  Have you ever seen a placemarker that’s obviously in the wrong location, or tried searching for an address and taken somewhere you didn’t expect?  If so, post it to twitter and add the hashtag #awkwardgeocode or leave a comment. Let’s start capturing these map anomalies before they are corrected.  If you have a #awkwardgeocode feel free to share!



Geo Terms I Want to See Disappear in 2013

Geo/spatial/location/GIS is everywhere now-a-days.  That is awesome.  No longer is what we do a specific niche that is only found in a small set of industries.  Openstreetmap, location aware devices, dropping pins, Google maps – everywhere you look geo/spatial/location/GIS matters.  Heck, even Gizmodo has a “Maps” tag.

This ubiquity is both a blessing and a curse.  Thanks to the every growing understanding of what we collectively do there has been some abuse of a few keywords throughout the geo-world (some of which I am guilty of).  For 2013 I think we should retire a few terms to keep us (me) sane.  Here is my short list.

1. Heatmap -Heatmaps are one of my least favorite cartographic representations of data across space.  I love density maps, choropleth maps, and interpolated surfaces, but misrepresenting data for the sake a cool map is a giant pet peeve of mine.  Let’s make a conscience effort in 2013 to stop people from using the term heatmap to describe any map with bright colors on it.

2. Cloud – We get it. Enough already.  To the Cloud!

3. Analytics – Overused and abused term #3.  What are you actually analyzing? I love identifying and understanding patterns across space, it’s what I do everyday, but let’s lay off using the term analytics to represent any type of math or stats done on a spatial dataset. To me analytics involve higher level operations, whereas I think people often use the term to represent basic stats.

4. Big Data – You have big data, I have big data, we all have big data.  Question.  What is big data?

These opinions are mine and mine alone.  Are there any geo related terms that you think have been overused in 2012 and need to be retired in 2013?  Leave a comment.  This could be fun.


Hurricane Sandy! Data and Maps

I noticed earlier that my post about last year’s major New England storm was getting a ton of action today.  It’s probably time to get some info up about Hurricane Sandy.

I’ll keep updating this page when I come across data sets or mapping sites with pertinent information about the event.  If you have a good link post it in the comments section!

Last updated 11/4/2012

Storm Mapping Sites

Hurricane Sandy Data

Twitter/Social Media Mapping

Power Outage Sites

I’m in Somerville, Massachusetts and the wind has been whipping all day.  If the power stays on I’ll try to update this page if I come across some more data and maps.


Does anyone write code for custom map mash-ups anymore?

Hey geo-folks, I will be updating my mash-up pages this weekend to make sure they all work, but I don’t plan on adding any new ones or updating features unless I am really inspired. One of the problems of using data from a variety of sources and different APIs is that sometimes stuff changes, whether the API is updated or data sources become invalid.  This means that the author of the mash-up needs to keep an eye on their pages to make sure they are up-to-date, which I haven’t been doing lately.

I think the era custom mash-ups is over and has been for a while and I am sure others will agree.  There are so many great options for users of any skill level to create and post maps online that writing custom code for a simple online map is old news.  And that is the way it should be.  I am a big believe that the more people who can create maps and share geo-data and geo-ideas, the better off we will all be!

But…there will always be the need (and market) to create a customized online maps for specific and advanced needs, so don’t go and forget all that JavaScripting you know and love!

Mapping North Korea

UPDATE – As of 1/30/2013 Google has added North Korea features to its maps.  Feel free to continue reading this post, because as of 5/18/2011, when this post was written, it was spot on. Just imagine that the embedded Google maps don’t have any features.  I really should have grabbed screen shots when I wrote this.

A week or so ago I read a story from Amnesty International that discussed the use of satellite imagery to measure the growth of  political prison camps in North Korea.  I thought it was great that these citizen geographers were using a resource such as satellite imagery to measure this troubling phenomena.  Then, the inquiring geographer in me wanted to know where these prison camps were within North Korea. A quick Google/Wikipedia search gave me some coordinates and I was able to find the locations on the map.  I then noticed something, that to me, that was way more interesting.

I zoomed out just a little bit and I noticed the total lack of cartographic markers on the map. I then zoomed out some more and there were still no place names, regional boundaries, city names, or physical features.  Test it for yourself, zoom in and out on the following Google Map.  Pretty amazing.

View Larger Map

Then I checked out the region around the capital city of Pyongyang, which is a city of over three million residents.  Still, nothing.

View Larger Map

The researcher in me then wanted to compare the cartographic representation of North Korea using other popular online map services.  I did a simple search for North Korea and Pyongyang using Bing Maps, Open Street Map, and MapQuest. The following results are very interesting.

Bing, owned by a gigantic corporation, which has used professional data providers for many years, has a much better North Korea map than Google, with cities, regional boundaries, and physical features labeled:

and Bing’s Pyongyang map had some minimal detail to it.

Open Street Map (OSM), an open source, user created worldwide map, was by far the most detailed.  Why? Because the OSM community created and published the data themselves.

View Larger Map

There is also far more detail in and around Pyongyang than Bing and Google.

View Larger Map

MapQuest (yes, they still exist) was a happy medium between Bing, and OSM.  There was detail in regards to the major cities, regional boundaries, and physical features.  There was also a clear difference in terms of  the cartographic details when one compared the cartographic features in the neighboring countries of China and South Korea.

Around Pyongyang the level of map detail was greater than Google and Bing, but less than OSM.  The user can make out details related to major transportation networks and some local features.

The overriding questions is, why would these three other web mapping providers map this information but Google wouldn’t?  I searched for a reason throughout the interwebs and I couldn’t find a legitimate answer.  I understand the North Korea is a closed society, run by a dictator that has a horrible human rights record. However, if this apart of Google’s “do no evil” approach to business then why are other countries with troubled histories, dictators, or in civil wars mapped?  Whatever the reason, there are a number of other sources for mapping data that are easily accessible.


Google Map V3 WMS Transparency Slider!

Gavin, from sent me a note the other day about some work he did in regards to developing a transparency slider for Google Maps V3:

“I’ve created a transparency slider control that works with Google Maps API V3, if there’s enough demand I’ll take some time and extract it from my code to publish as a nice neat example so others can use it too. See it in action at use the “contact” tab there to get in touch if you’re interested.”

The transparency slider works perfectly and the slider bar fits well into the layout of the page.  I hope to take Gavin’s work and create a stand alone example sometime over the next few days.  In the meantime check out if you have some free time!

View Larger Topographic Map

Everything Should be Mapped – Somerville Tax Liens

I came across an interesting dataset the other day while reading the Boston Globe (online of course, does anyone buy actual newspapers anymore?).  The story, originally from Ward 5 Online, was discussing the number of properties in my current hometown, Somerville, Massachusetts, that have tax liens over 10,000 dollars!  The article provided a table from the City that included the address, owner name, and amount in back taxes for each property.   The story reported that this data was made available by the City’s aldermen through a request regarding derelict buildings that were shedding bricks (yikes!).

After I read the story I started to search for some of the properties to see if they were in my neighborhood.  I quickly realized that this data would be better utilized if it were in a map.  Thanks to Google Fusion I was able to quickly modify the table and map the addresses and back tax balances.  In the map I created I only included the amount owed, the location, the status (many of the properties have been taken over by the city), and the number of years that the property is late on their taxes.

Back Taxes Legend:  10k to 15k 15k to 20k   20k to 25k   >25,000k

This data can be further analyzed with a number of other free datasets including census, income, or home sales data.  One could then perform any number of analyses to see if there are any spatial patterns in regards to these large tax liens throughout the City (aka, future blog idea).

Also, this map is not perfect.  We all know that there are limitations to mapping with Google, especially in reference to thematic mapping, but overall one cannot complain about the speed and efficiency of creating a simple, but effective map with Google Fusion.  One item I would like to see from Google would be an embeddable legend.  Esri’s JavaScript API can do it, why can’t Google’s?  Now, we can have a discussion about how Google is collecting all of this data, having us create it for them(for free), and then doing who knows what with it, but that is for another day (aka, another future blog post).

Over the next couple of days I will take my dataset over to GeoCommons and work with their tools to create a better map and perhaps do some analysis (aka, another future blog post).

Until next time…

Massachusetts Census and Google Fusion

2010 Massachusetts Census Results by Town  – Google Fusion

Population | -5,000 | 5,001 -30,000| 30,001-75,000 | 75,001-125,000|+125,001

About a week ago I read a post from James Fee about a really impressive mash-up displaying the 2010 US Census redistricting data.  The mash-up came from WNYC displaying NYC’s 2010 US Census redistricting data by census tract. The development of the mash-up was explained in detail in a blog by John Keefe.

The map authors used Google Fusion to serve their data.  As we know Fusion allows for data with a spatial component to be easily mapped in Google Maps, but polygon mapping is limited to large geographic extents, like states or countries.  This limits users who may want to map data that doesn’t fit this mold.

The authors of the WNYC map needed more geographic detail, so they imported a number of census tract shapefiles into Google Fusion using a tool called Shape to Fusion.  They then merged several tables with the spatial data and then visualized it using Fusion’s visualization tools.  Shape to Fusion provided a great work around.  This online tool loads a zipped shapefile into a table in the user’s Google Fusion account, creating a geometry column.  The geometry column can then be mapped in Google Maps.  Brilliant!  The concept of storing geometry in a database isn’t new, but Shape to Fusion’s capabilities in the Google Fusion interface are slick.

So, after reading John Keefe’s blog I wanted to try it our for myself.  First, I went to MassGIS and downloaded town boundary data that included population counts from the 1980 to 2000 census.  Next, I downloaded the 2010 town census data from the Massachusetts Secretary of State.  After I loaded the 2010 census data into my Google Fusion account I used the Shape to Fusion tool to load the zipped shapefile into my Google Fusion account.   I merged the spatial data and the census data based on the town field and presto, web maps.

Following the advice of John Keefe‘s blog I created a separate table for each layer I wanted to map and the results are below.  Now, I don’t have the bells and whistles that the WNYC map has yet, but I was able to generate four embeddable maps in minutes that fit well in a blog format.  In fact, it probably took me longer to write this blog than it did to create the maps.  When I get some free time or when SF1 comes out I’ll build a more robust mash-up using this technique.

Here are the maps.  The user can click on a town a get some basic information as well.

1980 Massachusetts Population

Population | -5,000 | 5,001 -30,000| 30,001-75,000 | 75,001-125,000|+125,001

1990 Massachusetts Population

Population | -5,000 | 5,001 -30,000| 30,001-75,000 | 75,001-125,000|+125,001

2000 Massachusetts Population

Population | -5,000 | 5,001 -30,000| 30,001-75,000 | 75,001-125,000|+125,001

2010 Massachusetts Population

Population | -5,000 | 5,001 -30,000| 30,001-75,000 | 75,001-125,000|+125,001

Get mapping!