Geography · Economics · Visualization

JS.geo 2013: A Meeting of Javascript Mappers in Denver

So some Colorado folk have rustled up a get-together geared towards those who make maps using Javascript APIs.

JS.geo January 14-15, 2013 Denver CO

It’s not a “conference” and no one is making money: we’re charging $11.54.

There will be no “tracks”: Monday the 14th we’ll have talks (full talks, lightning rounds, etc.) in a single room.

The second day, the 15th, we’ll have office space for small-group work, collaborative coding, or free-association white-boarding.



So…what’s the point of this again?  Well, everybody knows that at most conferences the most valuable take-aways are the conversations among attendees. So let’s get-together and make the content of those hallway conversations the focus: particularly the “who’s doing what” and “wouldn’t it be cool if…” bits.

Who’s In?  The registration page has the RSVP list–you might recognize a few names. We expect folks from OpenGeo, Vizzuality, MapBox, Stamen, ESRI, Google, et al.

What’s the catch?  Ah, the catch.  We’re capping attendance at 75 or so.  And we’re already halfway to that quota.

If you’re a sleeves-up web mapper working with Javascript front-ends, this might be the best $11.54 you ever spent.


—Brian Timoney


ADDENDUM: First-day facility is being provided courtesy of the Facility for Advanced Spatial Technology (FAST) at the University of Colorado Denver. We are grateful for their support that enables us to keep the cost of this event to a minimum.


* Denver skyline photo courtesy of  dagpeak’s Flickr stream

“Finally: the election map that isn’t a lie.”

Best-selling science writer James Gleick refers to this map by John Nelson a bunch of us were linking to over the weekend (click for larger version):


Dot-Density, FTW

Based on similar work by Kirk Goldsberry, John took county-level data and posted a red dot for every 100 votes for Romney, a blue dot for every 100 votes for Obama.  The map effectively preserves the familiar geography of the continental US while accounting for the wide variation in population density.  Further, areas of electoral dominance by each candidate are easily identified, while the hues of purple effectively communicate mixed voting preferences.


The Limited Usefulness of Cartograms

I recall cartograms rising to prominence in the wake of the 2004 election with the maps of Gastner, et al at the University of Michigan. Mark Newman has continued that work and put out maps for the recent presidential election.  Here’s his cartogram based on county-level data:

In my mind, the cartogram is most effective in counteracting the visual dominance of the large “red” states in the middle of the US that tend to be more sparsely populated than the more densely populated coastal areas that often vote Democrat (in cartography-speak:  the areal unit problem).  But in re-shaping areas based on population, the cartogram runs up against a severe cognitive limitation:

Humans are really bad at visually comparing areas of shapes

Or, to put it another way,


This inability to accurately compare relative sizes of 2-D shapes are what make pie charts such a flawed approach to comparing quantities.  Add in the irregular shapes of counties, let alone the audience familiarity, or lack thereof, with the actual county sizes and shapes, and you’re left with a visual that doesn’t easily lend itself to close, prolonged inspection.

Contrast it to John’s map where the viewer is invited to closely inspect and discover all sorts of interesting patterns:  the reds of Appalachia, the blues of the 19th century slavery belt, the surprising purple found in the Salt Lake City metro area, etc., etc.


Who Decided Democrats are Blue and Republicans are Red Anyway?


Interestingly there is no Constitutional amendment decreeing Democrats be depicted in blue and Republicans in red.  This interesting Smithsonian post claims it wasn’t until 2000 that the familiar color assignments became the de facto standard and set the stage for all manner of sociological comparison.


Elections Are Good For Mapping

High profile elections raise all cartographic ships. Friends and family mention specific maps they’ve seen in the media, etc., and we in the industry try and soak up the vicarious admiration.  And the maps that stand out, such as John’s, invite others to share in the intellectual satisfactions of geographical exploration that led so many of us to make this avocation our vocation.


—Brian Timoney


UPDATE:  A valid criticism has been lodged–

In 2012, the color-blind are America’s forgotten 8%.

If “Spreadsheeting” Isn’t a University Major, Then Why Is GIS a Major?

The Excel spreadsheet is the world’s most popular way to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and visualize data.  Yet I’m unaware of an accredited institution offering a four-year Bachelor’s degree in Spreadsheeting.  Yet replace “data” with “geographic data” in the previous sentence, and suddenly everything is different?  Why is that?


Variation on a Theme

In a previous post, I described how the GIS industry’s insistent self-definition imposes significant hidden costs on organizations where anything spatial is silo-ed of from mainstream IT. More importantly, it limits the career horizons of its practitioners (except advanced programmers) with a disparate set of skills not readily acknowledged nor as financially rewarded in other sectors of the information economy. While the theme of self-definition resonated with some, others were more dismissive of this latest round of bloggy navel-gazing.  But semantics do matter: from job descriptions to salary requirements, language frames our place in the professional world.

But just as incumbent vendors have a vested interest in the “GIS” acronym, so too do the colleges and universities marketing their GIS curricula too often strewn with glorified software training and ossified best-practices packaged as education.

And their customers are the least equipped to judge the quality of goods on offer…


A GIS Major Will Get You an OK First Job

…but a GIS Minor Will Get You a Better Second Job

In the post-9/11 geospatial boom, entry-level GIS jobs were especially plentiful and being a GIS Major was an easy ticket to such a job.  And thankfully we still live in a world where being young, carefree, and pulling low 30s money can be a happy life indeed.  But when looking to take the next step in tackling bigger analytic challenges with a concomitant boost in salary, there are precious few non-programming opportunities to climb out of the GIS Analyst salt mines.  No, you want to have a body of specialized, domain-specific knowledge that is supplemented and enhanced by GIS know-how: let’s not confuse the yeast for the bread.

(Domain Experience + GIS)   >   (GIS + domain experience)

Domain knowledge–detailed knowledge plus experience–is the best insurance of employ-ability over a career that will be rife with technological change.  Leavening domain expertise with geospatial know-how with GIS skills–manipulating spatial data, performing analysis, and creating sound cartographic representations–is a huge value-add.

But don’t confuse the means with the end:  your domain knowledge is the end, your GIS skills just a valuable means to that end.

“So…What Should I Major In?”

The wonderful thing about the geographic sensibility is that it’s never been more needed than right now to address any number of “real world” problems.  A couple of months ago a colleague asked me about going back to school for a GIS Certificate.  I told her she’d be much better served by a studying Urban Storm-water Runoff and supplementing that know-how with a mix of in-person and online geospatial courses.

That joke was funnier before Hurricane Sandy.

But think about it: from urban impervious surfaces to coastal dune restoration, our world doesn’t lack for challenges.  Pick a challenge that gets you excited and deep-dive on the technical detail.  With the ubiquity of the web, there is no worry of being too niche:  Google, LinkedIn, etc. guarantee that even with the most eclectic subspecialty, the three-dozen people equally as interested can find you with a few keystrokes.



“Simultaneously Trivializing and Complicating GIS”

That is how long-time educator Joseph Berry recently summed up the state of GIS education.  Berry’s primary concern is that the analytic power of GIS has been eclipsed by the tools of GIS: spinning globes, ever-smaller GPS units, and, of course, The Cloud.  Berry proposes what he calls “Spatial STEM” (see–language matters), where geographic reason and spatial quantitative methods inform and broaden problem-solving approaches in engineering, mathematics, and statistics. Again, another implicit acknowledgement that the parochial self-definition of GIS hampers its own widespread adoption.


Your Transcript is Not Your Destiny

One of the wonderful aspects of the mapping industry is that it attracts a broad range of eclectic minds. Some of the brightest lights have university backgrounds in art, music, history, mathematics, etc.  With a broad curiosity and an ability to focus, you’d be amazed how rapidly one can adopt and master tools.  Does this render GIS coursework less useful?  Of course not.  But while GIS as an end-in-itself may help you land that first job, your career trajectory is best powered by a large passion to solve a difficult problem.  And as recent events on the East Coast have reminded us, some of society’s most daunting challenges will demand a geographical rigor and an analytical insight that goes well beyond mere tool proficiency.


—Brian Timoney



* colored keys photo courtesy of  Theen …’s Flickr stream
* stairwell photo courtesy of the seir+seir Flickr stream
* post-Sanday Rockaways photo courtesy of the  SpecialKRB Flickr stream