Esri and Me - Part 2 - My Community

Esri and the Local Community

As I go through this history, I am intentionally not using any names and am sticking with my experience.

I’ve always enjoyed participating in the local geo-community. Our local group here is the New Mexico Geographic Information Council. At one point I served on the board for an 8 year stretch (2003-10), including two terms as president (2006 & 2007).


It’s a volunteer led, grass roots GIC. Twice a year it holds a one day conference (spring and fall). It is incorporated as a non-profit. Meetings are funded via memberships, donations and sponsors. They also produce the Map Legend newsletter and offer student scholarships. For our 20th anniversary in 2004 we convinced Jack to give the keynote. I think that still holds the record for the largest NMGIC meeting (I wanted to include the photo but can’t seem to find it.)


Also in the southwest U.S. there used to be a conference named SWUG – the Southwest User Group. It was formed right here in New Mexico way back in 1986 as the "Southwest Arc/Info User Group." It included the ARC label because there weren’t too many choices in those days. You basically had Arc/Info, MOSS and GRASS. Below is a scanned brochure of the first meeting. Look who’s giving the opening remarks!


In the 90's the group was rebranded as "SWUG" and expanded to include Wyoming. Through the years, Esri has set up regional user group meetings in most portions of the U.S. However, ours was the first regional UG, and was not started by Esri. Like most geo-conferences of that era, it was always dominated by talks using Esri tech. Importantly though, with the re-branding came a clear mandate to be an "open" conference and welcome to everyone regardless of their relationship to Esri. For example, I could present on the MapServer web apps we were building.

For me these local conferences were a big part of my professional development. They are where I first started meeting others in the local community and where I gave my first talks…back when I had severe stage fright.

SWUG conferences were always volunteer led community events. The annual SWUG Conference traveled on a five year cycle among New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. They were typically 3 day conferences with ~200-300 attendees, complete with workshops and a map gallery. Each state set up a volunteer committee to organize the conference for the coming year with seed money from the previous state's conference. It operated this way, as a grass roots event, for over 25 years. 

SWUG 2007

When it cycled around to New Mexico in 2007, I was one of two Co-Chairs. That is when the NM contingent of SWUG began having concerns about the conference being taken over by Esri. The previous year, Arizona had incorporated SWUG (I still have a copy of that incorporation document!) and had included the following language on the new SWUG website:

All presentation topics must involve the use of ESRI products or that of their authorized business partners and developers. SWUG is a users group conference for GIS professionals who use ESRI software and related products.”

As we began to get organized for the 2007 conference most of our energy wasn’t going into planning. Instead our time was monopolized by seeking answers to questions like:

  • Does the fact that the individual in AZ incorporated SWUG within that state mean that SWUG is considered a formal entity that affects its status in the other states? 

  • Who will participate on the Board?

  • Are we bound to follow whatever regulations and by-laws related to it being incorporated in AZ? 

  • Can we continue to use the SWUG name in the other 4 states?

There were other messy and time consuming financial issues related to the incorporation of SWUG, too deep to get into here. Then there were issues around getting the keys to the new website. Eventually we came to the conclusion that we would run the 2007 meeting as they always had been. We also felt that we might be able to use this opportunity to put in place, a sound governing policy for the SWUG. Our conference that year was held on Halloween weekend in Santa Fe and we came up with cool orange on black tee shirts with a skeleton Kokopelli logo.

It ended up being a great meeting and we were able to pass a nice amount of seed money on to Wyoming for the 2008 edition.

Me opening the 2007 SWUG

Me opening the 2007 SWUG

2007 SWUG Program

2007 SWUG Program

The 2012 SWUG

The conference moved through its five year cycle and in 2012 returned to New Mexico. During that time there were increasing warning signs that Esri was still trying to assume control of SWUG:

  • The 2009 event in CO had been called the "Esri SWUG."

  • Again in 2011 Arizona only allowed talks to be submitted if Esri software was used.

As a previous co-chair, I returned to the planning committee. This year the conference would be held in Albuquerque. On December 5, 2011 we received an email (I still have a copy of it!) from the regional Esri rep at the time, saying that the Esri event teams were working on potential sites for the 2012 Esri South West Users Conference (Esri SWUC).  The potential towns included: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Denver and Phoenix. It would be held during the same time as our meeting.

New Mexico has some fight, especially since the group was founded and started right here. We had the institutional memory of the intention behind the conference. We had assumed - even taken it for granted - that all kinds of software, and all kinds of methodologies for exploring geographic issues could and would be explored at our gatherings without bias. This was also back in the days when GIS, Remote Sensing and GPS were separate but related fields. People were also welcome to share on those topics and Esri wasn't a remote sensing or GPS vendor.

We replied that:
We’ll do this as we’ve done for over 20 years, and will let Esri know when we are ready to invite them. Esri needs to understand that this is a User Group event independent of the “company”.  We use the products and convene to share that experience. That was the original intent. For New Mexico and other states, this conference has not been an ESRI event, yet they can participate in any degree as they see fit. Note - we started this in 1986 in New Mexico as SWAIUG. We’ve invited and kept the conference open to anyone who wishes to participate; whether an ESRI Business Partner or not.”

After that email exchange, Esri escalated the issue by asking for a spot on our community SWUG Board. We told them that no vendors were permitted on the board, but that they could be a sponsor. 

Then they went rogue. Esri organized their competing "Esri SWUC" conference for the same week we settled on, just an hour up the road in Santa Fe, NM. They locked down a domain, set up a web page, and began aggressively competing with our conference.

Esri’s Event and Marketing teams were damn near impossible to compete with. As a result, our community led SWUG had lower attendance and the seed money for the next conference in WY wasn’t what it needed to be. For the 2013 conference in WY, representatives from the five states met and decided they had to let SWUG go. It was re—branded as the "Geospatial Conference of the West." Unfortunately that just didn’t have staying power and was a one off conference.


Esri kept the pressure up and their conference team intentionally and aggressively took SWUG over. It was a conference coup! Esri SWUG still exists today but doesn’t happen every year, and only pops up in high population cities. We all know location matters! It no longer travels to each of the original five states, a true loss for our region. For example, it has never returned to New Mexico. Like most Esri events it’s now largely a marketing show instead of a community networking and technology sharing event. Esri successfully killed a community led conference that had thrived for over 25 years.

Perhaps incorporation could have protected SWUG as it has protected NMGIC, but in 2006 it wasn’t set up cooperatively among the five states. It became too difficult to both compete with Esri and come to consensus about by-laws among the participating states. It overly complicated a system that had worked for 25 years.

It was a painful period of time and reading all the old messages brings up all the feelings again. I still harbor resentments about this. When this was happening it took all the joy out of trying to come together and share. I see Esri’s motivation as a business decision, but also feel it was so unnecessary. They could have just participated in our conference and let it be. Esri has a penchant for being way more overbearing and aggressive than is necessary. This is just another example.

These days NMGIC serves the purpose for New Mexico. I regularly participate at that, regularly giving FOSS4G talks. I’m glad to see other community led regional conferences springing up, like the GeoRodeo in Austin, Texas. These are really important in maintaining local geospatial communities.

Esri and Me - Part 1 - Background

One of my main contracts involves authoring a blog for the Community Health Maps program. I helped the National Library of Medicine build this program over the last several years. Apparently this has taken up all my spare blogging time because looking back, I haven’t blogged on my own page in a year! I have a long list of ideas but not much time. For the last 6-8 months my Saturday’s have been taken up writing Discover QGIS 3.x and most recently the soon to be released QGIS for Hydrologic Applications with Locate Press (the latter with Hans van der Kwast).

However, this post has been cooking for a long time and due to events last month at the Society for Conservation GIS conference, I am feeling particularly motivated. I’ll get to that soon, but first I want to give a little of my GIS backstory. I have a lot to say - so this is going to be Part 1 of 3.


I began doing GIS in the late 90’s. Like most who began at that time I learned using Esri tools. I started on command line Arc/Info 7 on a UNIX main frame. I am still grateful to have learned via command line. I became adept at Arc Macro Language (AML’s). Then ArcView 3 was released and I mastered Avenue and built lots of custom applications. Avenue was an Esri language for customizing ArcView 3.

This all happened in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s an interesting place, ethnically diverse, poor, and dusty but with a beautiful landscape and weather. For some reason it also has a deep GIS history. These days I’m certain Esri license numbers are 6 or 7 digits long. Interestingly, the City of Albuquerque GIS used to be Esri license #6 and the Earth Data Analysis Center at the University of New Mexico where I worked, was Esri license #9. I’ll admit back in those days I loved calling Esri tech support and giving them our license number. Sometime since, Esri has renumbered those accounts with long 6 digit ones.

FOSS Discovered

Initially I was always more interested in the applications than the tools used. I still am to a large degree. However, that began to change in 2000 when I first encountered open source. In those days I was tasked with building web apps with MapObjects IMS, and the first releases of ArcIMS. If you don’t know what those are, feel lucky. They left a lot to be desired. For example, we’d stand up a site with ArcIMS, and our web services would mysteriously stop each weekend. In 2001, we discovered Minnesota MapServer. Now it’s just called MapServer. It took almost a week to compile from source on our server, but once it was up and running it was really fast and ridiculously stable.

Around that time we also discovered PostGIS which was at version 0.5. It was very early in its development, but it was already very interesting. I began re-building the web apps with Php and Perl using Mapserver, PostGIS and GRASS for processing. The applications were so performant and stable I was sold on FOSS. In 2003 I attended the first Mapserver User Meeting (MUM) in St. Paul, MN. 

A younger me in the group photo from the very first Mapserver User Meeting in 2003

A younger me in the group photo from the very first Mapserver User Meeting in 2003

It felt very subversive and I wondered if Esri had people in attendance. The benefits of using FOSS were obvious. But like most who try to implement non-Esri technology, my office mate and I encountered a massive amount of resistance from the rest of the staff. We constantly had to justify the decision to use these tools. We’d build something that was fast and hit all the needed features, just to have our supervisors mumble something like, “interesting, could you do that in Esri?”. However, we were persistent, and what we built worked. During this time I also attended all the Esri UC’s. But I kept looking forward to the MapServer conferences which eventually evolved into FOSS4G conferences.

In 2004 I discovered and downloaded QGIS for the first time. It was at version 0.7 Seamus. It was cute, but not quite ready to be useful to my work. But I followed with great curiosity as it evolved. I left EDAC in 2008 to launch my own business, Bird’s Eye View. BTW - this was one of the best decisions I ever made. My office mate left shortly thereafter.

When we left, all the web services at EDAC were built on FOSS tech. In the intervening years it has reverted back to an Esri shop. If I’ve learned one thing, it takes a champion to keep FOSS alive in an organization.  

The ASTHO Summit on Climate and Health

During the last week of May I traveled to the island of Oahu in Hawaii to participate in the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) Insular Area Climate and Health Summit. It was a small intimate meeting organized by ASTHO. It was held at the Ala Moana Hotel with representatives from most of the U.S. territories including:

  • American Samoa
  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Federated States of Micronesia
  • Guam
  • Palau
  • Puerto Rico
  • Marshall Islands
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Hawaii Department of Health 
  • Pacific Island Health Officers Association (PIHOA)

The ASTHO Summit on Climate and Health group photo

The first afternoon was focused on the impacts of climate change, preparedness and building resilience. There were great presentations on climate change (Capt. Barry Choy - NOAA), an overview of the tools and programs available from the CDC (Paul Schramm), and issues around vector-borne diseases and mosquitoes (Janet McAllister). 

Then there were some very humbling and sobering presentations on current issues people are having in the Mariana Islands, Micronesia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sea level rise and hurricane recovery were the main topics. I heard first hand, stories of people dealing with climate change impacts now. This was nothing hypothetical. These were real people dealing with catastrophic current impacts. Compounding this were stories of how many islands have such small populations that they frequently fall off federal priority lists.

For example, in Micronesia they are working on a salt water tolerant taro variety. They hope this will help farmers produce food, even with rising seas. The Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico were hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes last September: Irma and then, two weeks later, Maria. Many there are still in survival mode. They used to think of being ready for a week long disaster. They are now planning on months. They need to know basic things, like where all the backhoes are. Climate change is here and the people dealing with the biggest early impacts had very little to do with the cause.

The first afternoon

The second day focused more on tools and resources which was why I was invited. There were more detailed talks given by the CDC on vector control, especially from mosquitoes. That afternoon I taught a 3.5 hour Community Health Maps Train-the-Trainers workshop to a group of health officials from each territory. The idea was that they could train their colleagues once back on their islands. We went through the entire CHM workflow: A) how to design a data collection form using Fulcrum, B) how to collect data using smartphones, C) how to make a map in Carto and D) how to bring the data into QGIS.  

Onasai'i Aulava & Ruta Ropeti from American Samoa learning to use Fulcrum

John Tagabuel from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands learning to use Fulcrum

The last morning I taught a second Community Health Maps workshop open to everyone. I had about 30 attendees and again went through the entire CHM workflow.

The week was a reminder of how those of us working with technology day-to-day sometimes take it for granted. Everyone was super excited to have this training. It was also a lesson in how resource rich we are on the continent. One of my goals with Bird's Eye View is to use technology to help make the world a better place. (Thus my focus on conservation, public health and education.) One of the goals of the Community Health Maps program is to empower people with technology. This week fulfilled both and was very gratifying.

Most of the trainees had little to no GIS training yet instantly knew how mapping could apply to their work and lives. They want to map everything related to hurricane relief, salt water resistant taro farms, infrastructure related to mosquito outbreaks etc. A benefit of having the community do this is that they can be in charge of their own data and it helps build community relationships. 

One afternoon the officials from American Samoa wanted to see how well the basemaps available in Carto and in QGIS via QuickMapServices represented their home. I opened up OpenStreetMap and zoomed to Pago Pago, American Samoa. It was pretty feature rich and they were surprised and excited. 


During the closing session the ASTHO organizers went around the room and asked people to give their closing thoughts. I was amazed to hear person after person say they wanted more training from Kurt. It was great feedback. There seems to be a lot of potential for CHM, and FOSS4G generally, to help U.S. Territories and ASTHO deal with the immediate and long-term health issues related to climate change.

It felt like making real connections with people was easy. That's the way the best meetings/conferences feel. I hope to travel to some of these islands and teach more in depth workshops to get people really up and running with QGIS. I also plugged FOSS4G Oceania and hope some take advantage of the travel grant program!

Farewell shot with my new friends from American Samoa

My Favorite Features of QGIS 3.0...To Date


I've spent the last couple months test driving the nightly releases of QGIS 2.99. I have used it in a production environment for paying clients and it works really well. I've crunched data and made maps. So for #QGIS3Eve I thought I'd quickly run through some of my favorite new features. Note: This is far from a comprehensive review. There are many features and tools I just haven't had time to explore and use. I also know there are many new features I'm not even aware of yet. With that caveat here is what I have found useful so far!

Overall the look of QGIS is very similar. (Note that Browser is gone as a standalone application.)  However, upon closer inspection there are a lot of very useful changes. Layer Properties, Project Properties and Options have all been touched up and added to. Probably the first thing you will notice is that instead of there being a row of add data buttons down the left side, there is now a Unified Data Source Manager button which opens up a browser.

Unified Data Source Manager

The Unified Data Source Manager can be used to access the myriad of data formats QGIS supports and add them to QGIS. This includes vector, raster, database, web services etc. You can browse within GeoPackages, SpatiaLite db's, GRIDS, coverages and Esri File Geodatabases. Any GIS layer you are interested in, can then be added to QGIS by dragging and dropping it onto the map. It also includes a connection to the Project home folder (where your qgs file is located) which is super handy.



There are some new renderers like point cluster and I've heard there are new Geometry generator expression options which is exciting. One feature I am proud to have had a small role in sponsoring is the Paletted/Unique values renderer for discrete rasters! In my conservation work I deal with a lot of vegetation and land use rasters. Now it's possible to quickly and easily give each unique value it's own color. 


The Processing Toolbox

The Processing toolbox was completely redesigned and many tools were rewritten. This means many are now faster, more flexible and stable. There are many new tools that didn’t exist in QGIS v2.x (Topological coloring, plotting tools, Find projection, Execute SQL, Order by expression, Geometry by expression, Add autoincremental field, Advanced Python field calculator are some I've noticed). Additionally processing tasks also now run in the background. This means you don’t have to stop working while a tool runs! Yet another new processing feature is that layers in different projections will automatically be reprojected, so there is no need to reproject beforehand.



Map Labels:

It now much easier to edit labels. Previously you had to set up attribute columns and set those as data defined overrides. If you don’t know what all that means, it’s OK. Now all you have to do is simply put the layer into edit mode and edit labels with tools on the Label toolbar. This is not only a huge timesaver, it means I don't have to have multiple LabelX/LabelY columns in a layer for different scales and maps. Maps also now redraw more quickly due to cached label renderers.


Search Bar

There is now a universal Search bar in the lower left corner that can be used to search for map layers, features and processing tools. This makes finding things in QGIS quick and easy...although I keep forgetting it's there.



One cool readability feature is that cell contents now auto wrap.



Select Features by Value:

There is a new Select Features By Value tool which is going to get heavy use. It can be used to quickly find and select features by attribute. Values will autocomplete and a variety of select statements can be used! Once found, you can Flash the feature on the map, zoom to it and use the assortment of Select options. 



The array of functions and variables available in the QGIS, which was already really impressive by 2.14 is now even more so. There are new expression categories like Arrays, Map Layers, and Maps. The Select by Expression window has also been slightly redesigned.


Compositions --> Layouts

The QGIS print composer was completely redesigned. They are now referred to as Layouts. Map insets can now be in a different map projection than the main map. There is a new and improved system of guides which include settings in any unit of measurement you could want (mm, cm, m, in, ft, pt, pica, pix). There are new controls for choosing fonts which include recently used fonts. When you export a map, a link to the folder shows up making it easy to track down the exported map. I also understand that it is now possible to author plugins for Layouts. I can't wait to see what people come up with.


GeoPackage Support!

QGIS 3 now supports the GeoPackage format as the default. This makes them really easy and convenient to work with in 3. This is probably the beginning of the end for shapefiles. You can easily save to an existing or new GeoPackage. This includes output from Geoprocessing tools. There is even a new Package layers tool that ports out all the layers in your project to a GeoPackage!


Other notable enhancements:

  • A fully integrated 3D environment (see below) - I have played with this a bit but not enough to become proficient. I fully expect this to become much more robust in the near future.
  • Editing improvements including: a) widgets for layer attributes, b) CAD style digitizing tools that allow you to create perfect rectangles, circles, ellipses etc. and c) a new node editing tool with a lot of behavior improvements
  • Previews of where each map projection can be used. This will be a big help for beginners!

All in all, it's a seriously impressive amount of work. I am eternally grateful to all the sponsors and developers who made this happen. I can't wait to dig in deeper! Enjoy everyone.

My Harper's Index for 2017


Number of clients served: 22

Percentage of clients which were new: 41%

Approximate number of maps made: 256

Minimum number of weeks it took me to complete my GeoHipster interview: 10

Percentage of GeoHipster calendar submissions accepted: 50%

Percentage of blogs authored vs the number I hoped to write: 50%

New languages I began learning: 2


Number of short courses taught: 10

Number of professional workshops taught: 9

Percentage of professional workshops taught in Europe: 11%

Percentage of professional workshops taught in my city: 11%

Maximum number of semester long FOSS4G courses taught: 1


Number of US States traveled to: 7

Minimum number of Scandinavian countries visited: 3

Number of flights boarded: 34

Total kilometers flown: 55,783


Number of professional conferences attended: 7

Ratio of conference talks given to conferences attended: 6/7

Ratio of conference workshops taught to conferences attended: 3/7

Average number of hours of a conference workshop: 5.3

Ratio of conference workshop taught to those taken: 3/4


Number of oceans I saw whales in: 2

Number of social networks I have accounts with: 7

Number of social networks I abandoned: 1

Number of new social networks I tried: 2

Number of coffee roasters bought beans from: 24

Proportion of coffee roasters tried that were Scandinavian: 5/24

Number of coffee shops visited: 22


Total workouts done: 175

Distance walked: 723mi / 1,163km

Calories burned: 107,000 kCal

Weight of my best deadlift: 375lb / 170kg


Mapping King Tides in Post-Irma Miami

In the last three weeks I've flown to Miami twice, each time for the Community Health Maps (CHM) project. This is a project I've been working on for years. The goal is to empower underserved populations with low cost, intuitive mapping tools. The work is funded by the National Library of Medicine.

I went to Miami specifically to support an already established coalition of organizations working to document the impacts of king tides and help the communities being impacted. The focus was on one particular community, Shorecrest, who's residents are feeling the effects twice a day. "King tide" is basically a popular term for the highest tides of the year. It is sea level rise in action. The groups involved include: New Florida Majority, Florida International UniversityResilient Miami, and Unitarian Universalist Justice Florida.

We had been planning these two trips since summer to coincide with the September and October king tides. The plan was to support the community by training them in how to map these king tide events and their impacts. Then Hurricane Irma hit. I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be more useful to help people document the effects Irma had on their neighborhoods?  Would people even have time to deal with the king tides in the aftermath of Irma?

When I first landed on September 17th it had only been six days since Irma had blown through. On the surface things looked almost normal. There was very obvious little structural damage. The visible damage from the street was piles of brush and debris on everyone's curb. The hotel was full of relief workers, mostly tree trimmers. Packing for these workshops were also a little different. I expected the water to be polluted, and it was also hard to know what the power situation would be in the neighborhoods I would be visiting. So I brought rubber boots, gloves, a face mask, portable chargers and a water purifier. 

We ended up going ahead with the initial plan. Collectively it was decided that there are often numerous variables involved in king tides such as storms. So the data would still be useful and it would be good practice for the community. Plus we might learn if there was more bacterial contamination resulting from the hurricane.

I thought this effort would be a perfect use of the new Fulcrum Community accounts. So Susan Jacobson from FIU applied for an account. It was immediately granted and we ended up using that. Jacobson and Tiffany Troxler from FIU, and Jan Booher from UU had already developed a water sampling protocol. They had refractometers for measuring salinity and bottles for collecting water samples. The bottles had a reagent in them that would tell us whether the samples were infected with bacteria such as coliform.  They also had yard sticks for measuring flood depth.

A King tide data collection kit

Two days ago I returned from the second trip to Shorecrest. Over the two trips I conducted several workshops with: people living in Shorecrest, students at FIU and community leaders. Using Fulcrum Community allowed me to focus on data collection with the community members. The only tech piece involved showing them how to use the Fulcrum app on their phones. That allowed our team to spend more time teaching about the actual water sampling protocol. Following that I taught a more involved workshop to the community leaders. There I showed how to manage the data and map it via QGIS and Carto. Going forward it will be their project to manage and I'll just serve in a support role. On October 7th there were dozens of people out collecting data!

Residents mapping and sampling King tides

The interesting thing about King tides is that they can come up via storm drains. The Shorecrest neighborhood we worked in is close to the coast, but not right on the coast. However, it is in a particularly low lying portion of Miami. During these king tides water comes up through these storm grates two times a day, flooding the streets, driveways and yards up to 2-3 feet in depth. The water is saline and initial water samples show that most has some level of bacterial contamination. The video below shows the flooding on October 7th at the intersection of NE 78th & 10th streets. 

Recently there have been some heavy rains saturating the soil and creating minor flooding in low lying areas. On October 7th the twice daily tidal flooding just added to it. The king tide water came up through the storm drains, cracks in the asphalt and the ground. The water rose up to knee level in a little over an hour. It flooded the Little River Pocket Park, streets, peoples driveways and yards. Trash piles from Irma are still there and are now potential sources of bacterial pollution. Most residents are also still dealing with mold and flood damage from Irma. It is not a good situation. Below are some before and afters that show the situation: 

Little River Pocket Park - before

Little River Pocket Park - during king tide


During king tide


During king tide

It was really powerful to be dropped into this community of Shorecrest, meet real people with real problems, and be able to help in some small way. My goal has always been to use the technology to help make the world a better place. I've also always been an activist. This work felt good from both perspectives. Disasters always affect poor areas the most and this is no different. It's a pretty grim situation that isn't getting much press. I'll be following up with some results in the near future, building on the initial map below.

FOSS4G 2017 Boston

On Sunday the 13th, I flew from Copenhagen to Boston to attend FOSS4G. It was a long flight, and after two weeks it was a transition from Europe to the US. It was also a transition from a small intimate QGIS conference in Denmark, to the biggest FOSS4G ever in a busy part of Boston.  

FOSS4G didn't disappoint. Monday began  with an impressive line up of pre-conference workshops. I took workshops on R, GRASS, PostGIS and Inkscape with QGIS. I was a little delirious from jet lag, but they were all really well paced and well taught. I really appreciated the materials being posted online, because I have more homework to do. Plus as usual I didn't get to attend all the ones I wanted to. 

Regina Obe set up a table for FOSS authors to sell and sign books. Since I was in Denmark, I pre-ordered my books from the publishers and had them shipped to Paragon. I wasn't sure what to expect and didn't want to be left with a ton of books to lug back to New Mexico. As it turned out I should have ordered more. I ordered 10 each of my two books and they almost sold out at the first break. I was really surprised. 

During the week I sat on a panel (What the Heck Does an Open Source Job Look Like Anyway?) with Sara Safavi, Rob Emanuele,  and Katrina Engelsted. Like the conference, the panel discussion went by really fast. I also gave three talks. One talk was on the Community Health Maps initiative I've been working on. For another I presented for a client who couldn't make it. It covered teaching earth sciences with open source GIS. I also co-presented on the State of QGIS with Larry Schaffer. 

As is usually the case, the people were the best part. It was fun getting to meet new people, people I've known of but never met, and reconnecting with old friends. For example, I was checked into the conference by a client of mine who I'd only spoken with on the phone, and the week kept rolling like that. There were about 6 of us who traveled from Denmark to Boston. It seemed we kept hanging out together in Boston, still in a Nødebo high.

It was a really well planned conference. Everything ran like clock work. There was always someone nearby to help answer a question. Kudos to the conference committee on a job well done! Now I'm about to head out to teach a workshop at Yale and another in Miami. No rest for the weary. Stay tuned!

Another Wonderful QGIS Conference/Hackfest/Developer Meeting in Denmark!!!

There's something notable in Nødebo. From August 2-10 The third QGIS User Conference, Hackfest and Developer Meeting was held in Nødebo Denmark at the University of Copenhagen – Forest and Landscape College (Københavns Universitet Skovskolen). I was fortunate to attend, as I did in 2015. The first two days were the users conference, then there was a 3 day hackfest followed by 4 days of workshops.

It was another intimate meeting with 120 people from 29 countries and 6 continents! My wife and I were the only Americans to attend the user meeting. It was really nice to have my wife and business partner along. This in fact became a theme of the meeting. Many brought their spouses/partners and kids. It felt more like a QGIS family gathering than a "conference".

Since we are all staying on a small campus and eating all our meals there, it creates a real bonding atmosphere. There were numerous opportunities to connect with others throughout each day. It is the best community building atmosphere I've experienced at a conference. The QGIS family is very warm and inviting. I think this is part of the reason QGIS is such a successful project. I got to catch up with old and dear friends/colleagues and meet many new ones.

Many of the talks were given by developers and we were updated on the state of QGIS. Topics included QField (Matthias Kuhn and Marco Bernasocchi of, a native QGIS 3D renderer (Martin Dobias of Lutra Consulting), the InaSafe plugin (Tim Sutton of Kartoza), QGIS Web Client 2 (Andreas Neumann). There were some short workshops in this section including a nice overview of LASTools by Martin Isenburg. Then Nyall Dawson (North Road) gave a truly memorable presentation Exploring the Depths of Madness with QGIS Symbology that I'm still trying to wrap my brain around.  Interspersed throughout the program were many presentations  highlighting local initiatives involving QGIS and several research projects. Tim Sutton just authored a much more complete accounting of the talks at the conference with video clips. You can find it here.

The environment at the Skovskolen is full of the feeling of Danish hygge. This is largely due to the hard work and gracious hosting of Lene Fischer. The meals are better than any I've had at any other conference by a large margin, and the local staff and students are warm and welcoming. We had a chatted with students Asbjørn, Ras and Frederik. Each night there was a gathering at the local watering hole Flaeken, with nail game challenges and fuzboll. I miss the nail game. It's a Skovskolen tradition involving pounding nails into a large stump. 

On the final day I taught a full day workshop on Cartography and Data Visualization in QGIS. The attendees were from 9 different countries. What I gave was a tour of the many great data visualization tools available in QGIS.

Data Visualization and Cartography with QGIS

I covered the print composer introducing some tips and tricks along the way and a section on Atlas generation. I then covered the many renderers now available, highlighting the 2.5D, Geometry generators, point displacement and showing some use cases for the popular inverted polygon shapeburst fills. I also covered some plugins such as QGIS2ThreeJS and the Time manager and use cases for different Blending modes. 

I sadly missed the group photo taken near the end of the hackfest taken by Maryanne Dawson. Sarah and I took some days in the middle to have a holiday. We rented a place in Copenhagen and flew to Oslo one day to visit the Viking Ship Museum. 

QGIS 2017 Group Photo by Maryanne Dawson

To top it off, on the final night Sarah and I were taken to a performance of Hamlet at Kronborg Castle. This is the castle that was the model for Elsinore in Hamlet. The performance was phenomenal including some interesting modern elements like cell phones and helicopters. If that weren't enough it was staged right next to the moat outside the castle complete with swans and full moon rising. There was nothing rotten in Denmark and I cannot wait until next time! From there we flew to Boston to attend FOSS4G. I'll report on that next!

A QGIS Workshop at the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS)

Last Sunday I taught a full day Introduction to QGIS workshop at the 2017 SCGIS conference in Pacific Grove, California. While I've taught this course many times before, this class was particularly unique because SCGIS, although an independent non-profit organization, is heavily sponsored by Esri. In addition, Max Wright with Conservation International, also taught a QGIS workshop entitled An Introduction to Predictive Land-use Change Modeling using Open-source Software, making 2 of the 4 workshops at SCGIS QGIS based. Certainly a first! 

A QGIS workshop at an Esri sponsored conference?!

A QGIS workshop at an Esri sponsored conference?!

My workshop was sold out with a waiting list and I eagerly anticipated meeting the participants. Almost universally attendees were either:

  • Mac users and/or
  • Looking for work and wanting some new skills

I expected there to be some ArcGIS power users from established conservation organizations who were just curious about QGIS, but there wasn't anyone who fit that description. 

Overall QGIS was very well received. During the morning session I introduced FOSS and QGIS, showed how to add and style data and create a map. At lunch one attendee said,

"I have about 10 pet peeves with ArcMap, and you just answered 7 of them with QGIS!"  

During the afternoon session I covered plugins, geoprocessing, the Graphical Modeler and how to get help/resources. If you missed it, all the workshop materials can be downloaded here.

One of the most interesting aspects of SCGIS is their International Scholar program. In attendance were a couple dozen scholars from around the world. I met people from Barbados, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Brasil, Columbia, The Gambia, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Zambia. It was really fun connecting with people from such different places working on conservation.

Then there was the location. We were at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on the Monterey Peninsula. The waves on the beach could be heard from our room and each night I went out to the beach to enjoy the sunset. I also had time to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and go on a whale watching tour!

One thing I realized is that many don't seem to look far beyond the Esri ecosystem for geo-tools. I've been an Esri user for 20 years, I get it. There are some great products in the stack. However, I hope more SCGIS'ers eventually venture to a FOSS4G conference. I think it would be immensely helpful to their work. The set of FOSS tools discussed there is so broad and interesting. Afterall GIS is just a tool, why not have a bigger set of tools to work with? Certainly having two QGIS workshops at SCGIS is a step in the right direction. 

I had some discussions with another SCGIS attendee about doing a workshop next year on how to work with LandFire products with QGIS. I'll keep you posted on that.  Next up is the 3rd QGIS User Meeting/Hackfest/Developer Meeting in Nødebo Denmark where I'll be teaching a full day workshop on Data Visualization and Cartography in QGIS!

Apparently It's Conference Season!

I don't think I've ever been to back-to-back conferences and this summer I'm going pretty much back-to-back-to-back. The best part is that they are all in great locations.

First up I'm giving an Introduction to QGIS full day workshop at the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) conference. The location can't be beat. It's at the Asilomar Conference Center, located on the coast just outside of Monterey, California. Historically this has been an esri-centric group so it's an exciting opportunity to show conservationists how far QGIS has come! I've been told the workshop is sold out with a waiting list.

The main presentation hall at Asilomar

The main presentation hall at Asilomar

I'll be home for a little less than a week. Then I head to the 2017 QGIS Users Conference in Nødebo, Denmark! Lene Fischer produced the video below if you want to know where it is and how to pronounce it :)

In Denmark I'll be teaching another all day workshop. This time the topic will be Data Visualization and Cartography in QGIS.  I'll cover the myriad of great data visualization techniques now available in QGIS including the QGIS2ThreeJS and Time Manager plugins. I was there in 2015 for the first QGIS User Conference and it was a great experience...I highly recommend it. The first few days will be the Users Conference, then there is a Developer meeting and it closes the second week with the Workshops. I'll be heading down to Copenhagen in the middle for a few days to be a tourist. 

2015 QGIS Conference in Nødebo Denmark

From Denmark I fly back to Boston for FOSS4G. I'll be participating in 3 talks and a panel discussion. It will be great to catch up with the #gistribe & #spatialcommunity folks face-to-face. After 3 weeks on the road I'll then fly home. It's going to be an adventure. 

I'll post links to my workshop presentations afterwards and I'll probably write a few summaries once I've recovered.

Teaching QGIS is a Labor of Love

I love teaching QGIS and FOSS4G and I've been doing it a long time. I developed and taught my first semester long Intro to Open Source GIS course in 2009 featuring QGIS v1.0 Kore. In 2014 I co-authored the GeoAcademy curriculum and that led to opportunities to publish several QGIS books. In the last few years I've developed a FOSS public health curriculum with the National Library of Medicine (Community Health Maps). 

I've taught for a lot of schools both face-to-face and online. Plus I've taught countless of workshops all over the U.S. In fact because of the books and the GeoAcademy I have so much material I can assemble a workshop pretty quickly. Teaching...I think I'm pretty good at it. I truly love turning students onto QGIS, especially after they've been indoctrinated into the world of geospatial via Esri. Seeing those light bulbs go off is awesome. Lately my favorite demo is showing students a street reprojecting race between ogr2ogr and ArcMap. It blows minds. Spoiler alert: ogr2ogr wins.

For better or worse I always need to temper my teaching schedule. First of all, it is a lot of work to maintain and update material, and that part is always volunteer. More importantly though, my bills are paid with consulting. Teaching takes time and I need to have enough time to do my consulting work. Plus I like 'doing' more than teaching. There are various ways to teach: there are face-to-face courses at the local colleges and universities, there are online courses on various platforms, there's authoring books, and there are professional training workshops. I've done a little of each.

The local colleges and universities just don't pay part-time instructors well enough. While I wish it were different, I've known this is the reality for a long time and accept it. But I do occasionally teach courses. When I go into teach at a school I just focus on the material and the students. It feels like an act of service. Giving back to the community. I'm cool with this aspect of it. I never wanted to be a full time academic.

Now there are platforms like Udemy where you design a course and make $10 per student. If one went viral you might get a small income, but I'm not sold on that model. Authoring books is good for street cred, but they are a lot of work and have a really short shelf life.

Recently I've been interested in helping agencies and organizations migrate to a FOSS/hybrid workflows. I'm well positioned knowing Esri and FOSS equally well. It's here that I've noticed something interesting. My local State and Federal agencies seem willing to fork out whatever Esri demands for training. However, when it comes to learning QGIS people seem to just want it for free, or close to it. Recently at a local GIS meeting I had a casual conversation with someone wanting to learn QGIS. He then actually said, "You'll come teach us at our office for free right?" 

Part of my work with the Community Health Maps project is teaching a Fulcrum/QGIS/Carto workflow to public health workers. These workshops are all free as they are subsidized by the National Library of Medicine. I've taught dozens all around the nation. People get really excited and afterwards they often talk about getting more training. However, when it comes to signing an actual contract they balk, and believe me I'm a good deal. I'm not trying to get rich. Meanwhile I continually hear about local agencies signing up for Esri workshops costing them hundreds or thousands per student. 

This trend exists for both face-to-face or online training. The GeoAcademy courses have always existed for free online. When we attempted to teach instructor led GeoAcademy courses online we couldn't get anyone to enroll unless courses were offered for $25 or less. The school wasn't even breaking even at that rate. So needless to say the offering didn't last long. I guess when a Udemy course goes for $10 it's a hard sell. But these were instructor led courses where a teacher was available to answer questions, provide feedback and grade labs. 

There seems to be some dynamic, at least in the States, where people know the software is free of charge so they shouldn't have to pay to learn it. I think the open source business model still confuses mainstream GIS users. It also tells me that people see little value in being able to teach it. I know teaching has never been a lucrative profession. However, the fact that people seem willing to pay Esri so much for training makes me wonder what's going on. For now l see it as a labor of love.

A Photo Journal of a Weekend at an Earthship in Taos, NM

This past weekend my wife surprised me with a birthday weekend at an earthship in Taos, New Mexico. It was originally built for actor and activist Dennis Weaver and was completely off the grid. A carbon negative building. All the water is collected in huge cisterns from rainwater, and electricity is from solar. It was built on a steep slope outside of Taos Ski Valley at 8,500'/2,590m. I created a super quick map of where we were. Last Saturday we drove the High Road to Taos to get up there from Albuquerque.

Storms rolling in over the Sangre de Cristo's while we ate lunch in Truchas

We rented it via Airbnb, and the host met us in the valley below Arroyo Seco. The first thing the host told us was, "I'll stop where you'll need to switch into 4wd low." We drove up on the high road to Taos.  Below is a video of us driving up the final bends to the earthship.

Drive up to the earthship

The views of Taos valley and Pueblo Peak were amazing from the front porch.

The view from the front porch!

Above are shots of the main living area looking west (left) and east (right). All the gray water feeds into the flower beds.

The central stairs up to the bedrooms

The bathroom behind a bottle wall

The living room

The living room

Uploaded by geomenke on 2017-05-12.

There was a private trail heading up the ridge. So Sunday afternoon we took a walk. Got about 1,000' above the house before it started getting stormy. With an early enough start we could have made to Lobo Peak. I had to have a few maps in here.

Looking south towards Pueblo Peak

Sunset on the front porch

Sunset on the front porch

On the way back we drove over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. At this point the gorge is 565'/172m deep. There was a small herd of bighorn sheep hanging out at the rest area! From there we headed south to Pilar. It's one of the most scenic routes in New Mexico. You drop into the gorge and follow the Rio Grande . We saw several more herds of bighorn sheep along the way.

Rio Grand Gorge looking north

A heard of bighorn sheep who were hanging out near the rest area!

A heard of bighorn sheep who were hanging out near the rest area!

Dropping down into the gorge looking southeast

The Rio Grande

The Rio Grande

Can you spot the two bighorn sheep?

It reminded me why I love living in New Mexico!

At Least 10 Reasons You Should Be Using QGIS

Last Friday I gave a talk at the spring New Mexico Geographic Information Council (NMGIC) meeting. There were ~100 people in attendance. I asked at the outset for people to raise their hands if ArcGIS was their primary GIS software. About 95 people raised their hands! I then asked who used QGIS as their primary GIS. About 2.5 people raised their hands. One person wasn't super confident. Since the topic of the meeting was remote sensing and UAV's I asked if anyone used something different for their work day-to-day. Two others raised their hands. Suffice to say it was an ESRI-centric group of mostly standard desktop users from local, state and federal govt, with some private industry and academics. A broad slice of the local GIS community. 

Since I mostly interact with the FOSS4G/GeoHipster/#gistribe choir, it's easy to forget that the majority of GIS workers in the US still haven't used software like QGIS. Nor do many have the permission to install it. That is changing, but there are still many who have just played with it on the weekend once or twice.


So I thought I'd share my experience and go through the main points of my talk. I've done this before at NMGIC. I do something similar every couple of years. But there was something different this time. For whatever reason the message really resonated this time. Even among the die-hard esri users. Maybe it was the animated gif's I used this time around, maybe it was because I used a lot of examples of the cool data visualization capabilities QGIS now has, or maybe people are fed up with esri licensing. I heard a lot about the latter prior to speaking. Anyway I felt like I finally broke through and it was fun. 

First I asked if there were any Mac users in the audience. At least 30 hands went up.

#1) Run QGIS Anywhere

Install it on Windows, Max OS X and Linux. I even have it running on my Chromebook thanks to Alasdair Rae's post. Then there is QField for Android. Plus it is 64 bit and has been for quite awhile. It is fast and boots up quickly.

#2) Interoperability!

QGIS reads/writes a silly number of file formats. This is where I first found a place for it in my day-to-day. Someone gives you KML/KMZ, GPX, data in a spreadsheet? No problem, and converting that into something more useful like GeoJSON is simple. Esri users can sleep soundly knowing they can read/write File Gdb's. The added ability to work with Spatialite, GeoPackages and PostGIS are perhaps the most important reason to use QGIS, as Mike Miller recently covered in this post

#3) 148 Basemaps Available!

I'll admit I was going for instant gratification. I was the second to last talk of the day and people would be tired. But when you compare this to the 12 that ArcMap has, and consider those 12 are part of the 148, it makes an impression on an esri user. These are available via the QuickMapServices plugin when the contributed pack is enabled.

#4) Geoprocessing!

Back to a more serious topic. This has long been the strength of QGIS. When you combine the ~900 tools in the Processing Toolbox, the batch processing capability, the Graphical Modeler and the Python Console it's a serious package. If you then work with PostGIS and/or R, which are practically fully functional GIS's in their own right, it's state of the art. 

#5) Semi-automatic Classification Plugin

I was trying to cater to the remote sensing crowd. But seriously this is just about the most impressive plugin in the fleet.

  • Download: Landsat | Sentinal-2 | ASTER | MODIS.
  • Dropdown band combination styling
  • Unsupervised and Supervised Classification
  • Spectral signature plots etc. 

There's a great introductory video of the capabilities. If you have 20 minutes it's well worth the watch. 

#6) Variables

I have come to love these. Store any constant. Make the variable Global, Project level or Layer level. I use them to store conversion factors: square meters to acres, meters to miles etc. Store your name as cartographer and use them in the Print Composer. The gif below shows using them in an acreage calculation. It also shows how easy it is to calc fields in an attribute table. Across the board QGIS requires fewer clicks than ArcGIS. 

#7) Cartography | Data Visualization | Styling

This used to be the weakness and now it's a strength. Most of the features I highlighted can't be found in Arc. What I tell people is that several years ago I had a list in my head of things you can do in Arc that you can't in QGIS. Now I have the opposite list and it's growing. Most of the following are on it. The color picker is crazy good. Warning...this section is a little long, and I don't even get into the Print Composer or Atlas generation, which have improved greatly.

The Interactive Styling Dock created by Nathan Woodrow is addictive and I now can't live without it. Tinker with colors and see if they'll work immediately. Works for labels too. If you haven't used it, check it out.

The array of QGIS renderers and sub-renderers is very impressive. There are of course the usual categorical and graduated ones. But there are also Inverted, 2.5 D, Point displacement, Heatmap, Hillshade and geometry generators! I showed two use cases for Inverted Polygon Shapeburst Fills which I use regularly these days. First coastal vignettes (left) and then study areas (right). 

Then there are Blending Modes. When wanting to show something like land ownership over a hillshade image you can use transparency. But the ownership colors become bleached & you don't get full hillshade detail. Instead in QGIS you can use one of 13 blending modes. Below is an example of using the Multiply blending mode on a land ownership layer. The result is full saturation of the colors in the ownership layer and full detail in the hillshade.

And it continues with Live Layer Effects created by Nyall Dawson. Quickly add inner glows, outer glows, drop shadows, blur effects etc., to your vector features. 

Copy/Paste layer styles. I know you can do this in ArcMap by importing symbology. However, it's just easier and more complete in QGIS. Right-click on a layer and copy the style, then right-click on the other layer and past the style. This includes label settings too. 

And if you need 3D there is the QGIS2ThreeJS plugin. It lets you set up a 3D view in QGIS. It writes out some javascript files and an html file and the result opens in a browser. It's very responsive. Below is a view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico showing some wilderness proposals. Google imagery is draped on a DEM.

#8) Expressions and Functions

The array of functions and variables available in the QGIS select by expression window is awesome, especially when compared with ArcGIS which has just string, date and numeric. Plus these can be used in data defined variables, the print composer, the Atlas generator, rule based styling etc. In the case of data defined variables I doubt people have even thought of use cases for exposing all of this in each piece of a style or a label. But it's there if you ever need it.

#9) Geometry Generator Symbol Layers

I don't know if this really deserves a spot in the top 10, but I just discovered them and think they're cool. It's another case where it feels like the developers of QGIS are thinking outside the box and being creative with geo data. You can use this sub-renderer along with the expression engine to modify geometries just while rendering features. Plus the resulting geometry does not have to match the original. For example use the expression: centroid($geometry) on a polygon layer to render it as centroids. Or use: buffer ($geometry, -4000) to render a polygon layer with internal negative buffers of 4000 meters. Below shows the Colorado Game Management Units rendered as normal black polygons, then as light blue internal buffers and finally as red centroids.

#10) Virtual Layers

These are like database views. You can define a layer based on an SQL query. However it doesn't matter what file format your data is in! So you can use spatial SQL on shapefiles, KML, CSV's etc. Below is an example of creating a buffer view of some dialysis clinic points. 

#11) Some Things Are Just Easier in QGIS

There are a lot of simple tasks where QGIS requires fewer clicks, or is just more straightforward. The Save vector layer as... is a great example of that.

  • Reprojecting layers
  • Converting between file formats
  • Being able to read so many file formats
  • Editing (this is an area I wish I'd had time to cover)

#12) It's Rapidly Growing and Evolving

With a new stable release every four months, new features are being added all the time, QGIS is really growing fast. Due to this rapid pace each spring there is a long-term release created. This works better for production environments. Bug fixes are backported to this over the course of the year.

Another plus for QGIS is that you can have multiple versions installed with no issues. For example, I have the stable release, the long-term  release and the bleeding edge nightly release running.

We're also at a cool time in the QGIS development cycle. There is a major new release due out in February 2018 - QGIS Version 3.0. This incorporates a new version of Qt and Python 3. It looks to be faster and have quite a few new features. It will also sport a new logo.


#13) Help Resources

There are a myriad of support options these days.

#14) It's Free and Open Source!

I was also clear that I'm not trying to get you to stop using ArcGIS. You can still use QGIS and have an ArcGIS license. There is room in most offices for a hybrid solution to geo issues. In fact, it would be difficult to make an argument against it. These are just tools. You wouldn't limit yourself to just one screwdriver. Why limit yourself here? QGIS is free to install and check out. For example, if you need Spatial Analyst tools but don't have the license, use QGIS. If you need that Erase tool but don't have the license, use QGIS. Although I do think it's only a matter of time until you realize you can do everything you need with QGIS. 

Plus with QGIS, if there's a feature you need you can develop it in-house or sponsor it. A year ago I submitted a feature request. I realized there was no easy way to get QGIS to style a discrete raster. For example, one with vegetation types or land use categories. The feature request just sat there. Then Nyall Dawson came out with this post which got me thinking. About the same time I saw a post in a listserv about this issue. I ended up having a conversation with a few QGIS users about it. We decided to put together a proposal. Stéphane Henriod deserves all the credit here. We pitched it to Nyall Dawson (North Road) who returned a quote. We realized that while none of us could afford it individually, collectively we could. Within a few weeks the feature was done and available via the nightlies. 

Discrete raster styling will be a new feature when 3.0 comes out. It's minor but was a very empowering experience. As I've heard Anita Graser say, 'It's a do-ocracy.' If you want something done, don't just complain, you actually have the power to change it!

Like I said at the outset, for whatever reason my talk was really well received this time around. I had several die hard esri users come up to me afterwards and tell me some version of, "I always thought yeah yeah yeah but I have Arc..., but now I think I'm going to download QGIS this weekend." I honestly think some of the styling capabilities are mind blowing to someone who has been locked in an esri box. Plus many don't realize that QGIS has tools like the Graphical Modeler, or that you can read a ESRI File Geodatabase. Once people realize what it can do it's a no-brainer. It was really gratifying to finally get through!

They also held a raffle and I won a drone!!! All in all a great day!

Coffee, Community Health Maps & My Favorite Coffee Shops Visited in 2016

For the last couple of years I've been working on a project called Community Health Maps for the National Library of Medicine. The goal is to empower public health organizations working with underserved and at risk populations with mapping technology. We aim to help people who don't have backgrounds in computer science or geospatial technology, and don't have budgets for ArcGIS licenses. I've helped develop a program to show these people how they can 1) use Fulcrum to map their communities with smartphones, 2) map that data with Carto and 3) go even further with QGIS. 

Coffee Brewers

Coffee Brewers

This work takes me all over the country teaching half-day workshops. I've got it down at this point. In 3-4 hours I can teach 20-40 people who have never done any kind of map work how to collect data and map the results in Carto and QGIS.

I'm also a coffee geek. I've been hooked by the third wave coffee bug.  I take my coffee seriously as evidenced by my collection of brewers! My wife also compiled the video below of coffee roasters we tried in 2016.

For each training location, I assemble local data from OpenStreetMap and/or local sources. I always include a layer of the local coffee shops to try. After all, I'm going to try them anyway. It's a hobby of mine. Plus it makes it a little more fun, after a few hours of training, to have them open up a QGIS map showing the training location and some coffee shops to try. I usually google 'pour over' coffee in the area, and am sure to exclude all the Starbucks. To me one key to a quality coffee shop is the length of their menu. The shorter the menu the better. For example, I love this menu from Ninth Street Espresso in NYC.

In the last year or so I've been to Charleston 3 times, Seattle twice, along with Spokane, Honolulu, Lawrence, Washington DC and Salisbury MD. I've also been to NYC, Raleigh NC, Portland OR and Denver CO for other business trips. I finally got around to compiling a map of the best coffee shops I've been to in the last year. There are some good ones not on here, these are just the best of the best.

Of these Milstead and Co in Seattle is my favorite. They aren't a roaster but it is simply the best coffee shop I've ever been to. They make each each cup of coffee individually via AeroPress and offer an amazing selection of coffees to try. They are followed closely by Coava in Portland, Toby's Estate in Brooklyn, Black Tap in Charleston, and Boxcar in Denver.  Below are some shots from these coffee shops. Coffee and GIS were made for each other!


Black Tap - Charleston

Milstead & Co - Seattle

Toby's Estate - Brooklyn

Boxcar Coffee Roasters - Denver

Coava Coffee - Portland

If there isn't a good coffee shop I'll bring my Porlex mini grinder, some good beans an my Aeropress. Makes a great cup o' joe in my hotel room! Try it!

A Trip to Maryland to Teach Three Mapping Workshops

Last week I traveled to Maryland. I taught two workshops at the Prince Georges County Department of Social Services for people working on homeless issues. As with most Community Health Mapping workshops, all attendees were novices to mapping technology. However, in the first hour they all built a data collection form in Fulcrum and went outside to collect some data around the building.

Prince Georges County Community Health Mappers

Prince Georges County Community Health Mappers

The attendees represented a variety of organizations including many working with YouthREACH Maryland. REACH is an acronym standing for Reach out, Engage, Assist, & Count to end Homelessness. It is an effort to obtain accurate, detailed information on the number, characteristics, and needs of unaccompanied homeless youth in Maryland. Other organizations represented at these workshops included:

  • Maryland's Commitment to Veterans
  • Maryland Department of Planning
  • Prince Georges Community College
  • St Ann's Center for Children, Youth, and Familes
  • Maryland Multicultural Youth Center
  • So Others Can Keep Striving (S.O.C.K.S)
  • Sasha Bruce Youthwork
  • Lifestyles of Maryland.

In the final two hours of the workshops attendees learned how to map the data they collected in both Carto and QGIS. We also had time for a brief discussion about how CHM could be used in their projects. There were a lot of ideas shared about how the technology could help community engagement.

The afternoon workshop attendees feeling accomplished after completing their Carto maps!

The afternoon workshop attendees feeling accomplished after completing their Carto maps!

After the two PG County workshops, CHM traveled across the Chesapeake Bay bridge to Salisbury University on the eastern shore.

The following morning I taught a workshop geared towards social work students at Salisbury University. Attendees went through the CHM workflow and were introduced to FulcrumCarto and QGIS. Below is a map of data collected around the student center in Carto.

Salisbury University Data Collection in Carto

Salisbury University Data Collection in Carto

The workshop concluded with a short introduction to working with data in QGIS.

Salisbury University Data Collection in QGIS

Salisbury University Data Collection in QGIS

That afternoon I'd hoped to catch up with Art Lembo who wrote How Do I Do That In PostGIS? I realized at the last minute that the author of this little book I've had on my bookshelf works at Salisbury University. Unfortunately he was under the weather. FOrtunately I had time to drive to the Delaware shore for a quick beach walk.

The next scheduled workshop for the Community Health Maps team will be at the Teaching Prevention 2017 Conference in Savannah, Georgia. That conference takes place from April 5-7th. If you are interested in learning this technology this workshop will be a great opportunity!

Serving as an Expert Witness in a Trial...Almost

The Case: A couple of years ago I was hired by a law firm to create map exhibits in support of a lawsuit. It involved the Las Conchas Fire. This wildfire burned in late summer of 2011 in the Jemez Mountains north of Albuquerque and west of Los Alamos, New Mexico. At the time it was the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history. In the end it burned 156,000 acres. This area includes much of Bandelier National Monument and threatened Los Alamos National Labs. 

By John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA - Las Conchas FireUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0,

By Andrew Ashcraft of the Granite Mountain Hotshots 

The fire was contained by August 3rd. As chance would have it, a huge monsoon thunderstorm hit on August 21st causing severe flooding to Cochiti Pueblo which lies downstream from the burn area.

My involvement: I was working for the plaintiff's which included both Cochiti and Jemez Pueblos. The lawsuit was against the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and the U.S. Forest Service for negligence in causing the fire. The map exhibits I made were pretty pedestrian by most cartographic or GIS perspectives. They were simple maps from existing data that put the extent of the fire and subsequent damages in context. However, I've never had to document a project to the extent I did for this. Data sources, dates and times, methods, software, phone calls, email exchanges all had to be documented thoroughly.

Outcome of the Lawsuit: In late 2015 a jury found that the two utility companies were 95% responsible for the negligence that lead to the ignition of the fire. The fire started when a diseased aspen tree fell onto the power line. They basically found that the tree should not have gotten to the point that it could fall on the line. The utility companies should have preemptively cut the tree, which was clearly visible from the right-of-way.

Expert Witness for Damages: In 2016 I found out that there would be a follow on trial to assess damages caused by the fire. I would be needed as an expert witness. At first it felt exciting, but it wasn't long until it felt daunting. Last summer I was deposed by Tri-State. I learned very quickly why they tell you to use Yes and No as answers whenever you can. Answering in any other way sent the attorney down a rabbit hole of rapid fire questions in search of some nugget he could use. It only lasted a little more than an hour but it felt like three. It was especially challenging because the attorney knew nothing of map scale, watershed delineation, or geospatial technology. At one point I was asked about which watershed a point fell in. I wasn't sure what the point of the question was. All I could say was, "According to this dataset yes." That lead to more questions, at which point I tried to explain that they are called HUC's, and that they are scale dependent etc. This lead to questions about best practices and ethics. Throughout I was honest and just tried to keep my composure.

Early this year I was prepped to appear on the stand. I met with the attorneys several times to practice. I felt very ready even for the unknown questions Tri-State would cross examine me with. This was going to be a jury trial and my teaching experience definitely helped me feel more prepared to explain details to laypeople. However, the night before I was to take the stand, I found out that the defense had accepted all my exhibits. They didn't need me to take the stand after all. It was seriously anti-climactic. 

The good news was that I was told that my exhibits appeared every day of the two week trial. They had been helpful to the case. In the end Tri-State settled. I don't know all the details, but am glad to have helped the Pueblos get something in return for all the damage done by the flooding. If I have to do this again I know it will be easier the second time. 

The Concise 2016 Year in Review...Another Good Year!


  • ~ 400 maps made...roughly
  • Numerous analyses done, some big, some small
  • Worked for 21 clients
  • Authored Discover QGIS with Locate Press
  • Co-authored Mastering QGIS Second Edition with Packt Publishing
  • Began learning R & working with GeoPackages, getting better at PostGIS/SpatiaLite and brushing up on Python
  • Continued to migrate all GIS work to FOSS4G
  • Connected with a lot of great geospatialists via social networking
  • Taught Community Health Map workshops in: 
    • Seattle WA (twice)
    • Honolulu HI
    • Spokane WA
    • Bethesda MD (twice)
  • Gave talks at:
  • Authored 17 Community Health Mapping blog entries
  • Taught 8 GIS courses at UNM Continuing Education
  • Travelled to: 
    • Seattle (twice)
    • Lawrence KS
    • Raliegh
    • New York City
    • Washington DC
    • Orlando FL
    • Bisbee AZ
    • Spokane WA
    • Honolulu
    • Meeker CO
    • Denver (twice)
    • Red River NM


    • Worked out 205 times...20 more than last year!
    • Climbed my 21st fourteener (Mt Bierstadt)...a work in progress
    • PR dead lift – 355lb
    • PR back squat – 315lb
    • Walked 410 miles...ah technology!

    What's New in Mastering QGIS - 2nd Edition?

    Myself, Rick Smith, Luigi Pirelli and John Van Hoesen are excited to announce the expanded second edition of Mastering QGIS. The goal of this book is to help intermediate and advanced users of GIS develop a deep understanding of the capabilities of QGIS while building the technical skills that would facilitate in making the shift from a proprietary GIS software package to QGIS. It is available in both hard copy and digital versions from Packt Publishing and Amazon.

    The book, which begins with a Foreword by Tim Sutton (QGIS Project Chairman), adds one new chapter, and 70 new pages from the first edition. Many new features have arisen in the last year. This book covers them all with step by step examples. This edition is updated to the latest long-term release version (2.14), and includes descriptions and examples of many new features. For example, this includes a new chapter on Advanced Data Visualization which covers live layer effects, QGIS2ThreeJS and Atlas generation. 

    What the book covers:

    Chapter1,A Refreshing Look at QGIS, reviews installation and basic functionality of QGIS that are assumed knowledge for the remainder of the book. New material includes user interface themes and working with Custom QGIS variables.  

    Chapter 2,Creating Spatial Databases, covers how to create and edit spatial databases using QGIS. While QGIS supports many spatial databases, SpatiaLite will be used in this chapter. First, core database concepts will be covered, followed by the creation of a spatial database. Next, importing, exporting as well as editing data will be covered. The chapter concludes with queries and view creation.

    Chapter3,Styling Raster and Vector Data, covers styling raster and vector data for display. First, color selection and color ramp management are covered. Next, single-band and multi-band raster data are styled using custom color ramps and blending modes. Next, complex vector styles and vector layer rendering are covered. Rounding out the chapter is the use of diagrams to display thematic map data. New material includes the numerous updates to the data Styling interface and all the new renderers (2.5D, heatmap, point displacement, inverted polygon & GRASS edit). 

    Chapter4, Preparing Vector Data for Processing, covers techniques useful for turning raw vector data into a more usable form. The chapter starts with data massaging and modification techniques such as merging, creating indices, checking for geometry errors, and basic geoprocessing tools. Next, advanced field calculations are covered, followed by complex spatial and aspatial queries. The chapter ends by defining new or editing existing coordinate reference systems. New material includes: new geometry checker tools and conditional formatting for attribute table cells.

    Chapter5,Preparing Raster Data for Processing, covers the preparation of raster data for further processing using the GDAL menu tools and the Processing Toolbox algorithms. Specifically, these include reclassification, resampling, rescaling, mosaics, generating pyramids, and interpolation. The chapter concludes with raster and vector data model coversions. New material includes the Slicer plugin and the new raster alignment tool.

    Chapter6,Advanced Data Creation and Editing, provides advanced ways to create vector data. As there is a great deal of data in tabular format, this chapter will cover mapping coordinates and addresses from tables. Next, georeferencing of imagery into a target coordinate reference system will be covered. The final portion of the chapter will cover testing topological relationships in vector data and correcting any errors via topological editing.

    Chapter 7,Advanced Data Visualization is a brand new chapter! In it we provide advanced ways to display your analysis results. QGIS has a greatly expanded repertoire of layer styling and display options. In this chapter, you will learn how to use Live Layer Effects, utilize the inverted polygon and 2.5D renderers, create an Atlas in the Print Composer and use the QGIS2ThreeJS plugin to create a 3D view of your data.

    Chapter 8, Exploring the Processing Toolbox, begins with an explanation and exploration of the QGIS Processing Toolbox. Various algorithms and tools, available in the toolbox, will be used to complete common spatial analyses and geoprocessing tasks for both raster and vector formats. To illustrate how these processing tools might be applied to real-world questions, two hypothetical scenarios are illustrated by relying heavily on GRASS and SAGA tools. New material includes working with R tools and Lidar data with LASTools.

    Chapter9, Automating Workflows with the Graphical Modeler, covers purpose and use of the graphical modeler to automate analysis workflows. In the chapter, you will develop an automated tool/model that can be added to the Processing Toolbox.

    Chapter10, Creating Plugins for PyQGIS Problem Solving, covers the foundational information to create a Python plugin for QGIS. Information about the API and PyQGIS help will be covered first, followed by an introduction to the iface and QGis classes. Next, the steps required to create and structure a plugin will be covered. The chapter will be wrapped up after providing you with information on creating graphical user interfaces and setting up debugging environments to debug code easily.

    Chapter11, Python Analysis Scripting with QGIS, provides topics for integrating Python analysis scripts with QGIS outside of the Processing Toolbox. Layer loading and management are first covered, followed by an exploration of the vector data structure. Next, programmatic launching of other tools and external programs are covered. Lastly, the QGIS map canvas is covered with respect to how a script can interact with the map canvas and layers within.

    Discover QGIS Is Out in Print!

    I'm excited to announce my latest QGIS book! Called Discover QGIS, it is the workbook for the award winning GeoAcademy curriculum. It is essentially 5 college courses full of labs! It comes with all the data, challenge exercises and solution files. Great for learning GIS, QGIS or for use in the classroom.

    The GeoAcademy is the first ever GIS curriculum based on a national standard—the U.S. Department of Labor’s Geospatial Competency Model—a hierarchical model of the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to work as a GIS professional in today’s marketplace.

    Originally written for QGIS v2.4, the GeoAcademy material in this workbook has been updated for use with QGIS v2.14, Inkscape v0.91, and GRASS GIS v7.0.3. This is the most up-to-date version of the GeoAcademy curriculum. To aid in learning, all exercise data includes solution files.

    Thoughts on FOSS4GNA 2016

    FOSS4G has been my favorite conference since I attended the first Mapserver meeting in 2003. I've attended each North American installment since then...except for the 2012 NA meeting in DC. I shared about this in my talk Adventures of a Solo GIS Consultant. (The map for my talk is below)

    The 2016 edition FOSS4GNA did not dissapoint. In fact it was one of the best, and not because I fell in love with Raleigh the way I did with Victoria in 2007, or Portland in 2014. Raleigh was nice, but it was more about the conversations between the talks. I loved that the organizers gave us so many long breaks. The rain all week also helped keep me inside :)

    Perhaps it is because I work for myself that being around all these like minded folks is so stimulating. Perhaps it's because I get to meet people I know from Twitter, face-to-face. I loved the moments when I was standing in a group of people and we're all introducing ourselves, by our Twitter handles, like "I'm @spara." Perhaps it's being around some of the smartest people I know. I know it's a little of all of these. FOSS4G is more than the sum of it's parts. I always learn new things, but if that is all it was, I wouldn't keep going back. It's because there is a community of people behind the twitter handles. OsGeo has done a great job of fostering a community with these conferences.

    I met a lot of people I knew from social networking like @sarasomewhere, fellow Locate Press author @PetersonGIS, #gistribe members @gisn8, @UUDreams, @MicheleTobias & @spara. I made some new friends too, like @GuidoS & @TinaACormier, and it is always nice to be able to catch up with people like @rjhale.

    The workshops on Monday were great. I attended the GDAL/OGR workshop taught by Sara Safavi & Sasha Hart and the Getting the most out of QGIS with Python by Chris Daley. Each had a good mix of review and new material. 

    The BoF sessions were a highlight. I sat in on QGIS, #gistribe and Women in GIS. The latter was a great discussion and I really appreciated hearing the experiences women have at FOSS4G and in the workplace. I've seen the numbers of women increasing over the years at FOSS4G, but it was good to hear how it could be more inclusive.

    Of course there were many great talks. Some of my highlights were:

    • State of the QGIS Project by Larry Shaffer
    • Awaken the QGIS Within by Gretchen Peterson
    • Uncovering Ancient Mound Builders Using Open Data and FOSS Software by Calvin Hamilton
    • Cartography with Inkscape by Michele Tobias
    • WTFGL: a beginner's guide to the future of open source web mapping by Lyzi Diamond
    • Empirical Mining of Large Data Sets Help to Solve Practical Large-Scale Forest Management and Monitoring Problems by Bill Hargrove

    I also greatly underestimated the keynote addresses. Each day I'd look at the title and say, "Maybe I can skip this and sleep in, or go get a good breakfast." But I ended up attending each one, and they were all fascinating. Each a little out of the box and provacative in just the right way.

    Thanks to the organizing committee for putting together a great conference. I thought the venue, the session schedule, the food and the communication were all outstanding. 

    FOSS4GNA Raleigh Organizing Committee

    I wish I had the budget to go to the 2nd QGIS meeting in Gerona or FOSS4G in Bonn. Realistically though the next time I'll be able to add to my map is FOSS4G in Boston in 2017. So hopefully I'll see you there!

    PS...after FOSS4GNA I met my wife in NYC to celebrate my birthday. NYC didn't dissappoint. The map of our adventures is below!