Category Archives: Technology

Mapping Twin Cities Neighborhoods

Drawing a map of the city based on how we live in the city

What makes a neighborhood? Many things may come to mind… including the people you live with, the places you frequent, and the locations you call home. Neighborhoods are the physical locations in which people connect with the city in which they live. They are dynamic and changing, yet static, they are unique and individual, yet universal. They are the living rooms of the city, where residents live, work, and play. Neighborhoods become part of your identity.

A collection of local hubs – Between Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are over 100 unique and distinctive neighborhoods, and more if you start to count the surrounding suburbs. Officially, Minneapolis has 81 neighborhoods, 72 of which are represented by organizations operated by the residents and businesses that live and operate within their boundaries. St. Paul has 15. St. Louis Park has 27. Edina has 45!

The city is a sum of its neighborhoods, both the official ones and unofficial ones, and each is defined by the people who live, work, and play in them.

What are the Neighborhoods of the Twin Cities?

Help make the most accurate map of Minneapolis and St. Paul yet.

You draw the neighborhood.

You draw the neighborhood.

This project creates a crowd-sourced map of the Twin Cities Metro Area representing the city through the eyes of the people. In the application, no neighborhood names or boundaries are here to start with. You make the map. Real or imagined, within a city, or crossing municipal borders. Names, extents, and descriptions are up to you. After mapping, be sure to View Maps to see other people’s contributions.

North Loop Neighborhood - Minneapolis

North Loop Neighborhood – Minneapolis

Draw your City

Visit the Application. Map your neighborhood, Twin Cities!

The Technology Behind

“Map your neighborhood, Twin Cities!” is built using LeafletJS and CartoDB. This project is coded on top of projects in Portland by Nick Martinelli (Thanks Nick!) and Boston by Bostonography (Thank you, Andy Woodruff and Tim Wallace).

Visit the Application. Map your neighborhood, Twin Cities!

Geography for the Non-Geographer

Geography, the science and study, is wide reaching, cross-cutting, and diverse. Spatial concepts, geographic fundamentals, analytical methods, and data maps are helpful or even critical in many disparate fields, see applications in Urban and Regional Planning, Environmental Studies, Public Health, Geology, Architecture, Journalism, and Civil Engineering.

As fields of study, Human and Physical Geography, Cartography, and GIS, are populated not only with professionals and academics, but also many enthusiasts and fanatics. The nature of spatial thought, geographic problem solving, and all of the related technologies attract a distinctive set of individuals both by trade and hobby that make for a unique and strong community, but must be careful of insularity and isolation from the industries and sciences that could it could benefit most. Interaction with the non-enthusiast is important. Geographers should be proactive and inventive, applying technology to existing methods, devising new problem solving techniques, and viewing applications in other fields as opportunity, not threat.

The focus of Geographic science, theory, and method should not be isolated, but rather seek to determine how geography can actively complement other sciences and industries, something the field is inherently tuned for. This necessitates introspection and a careful look at the field is presented to the non-fanatics, non-enthusiasts, and outside experts.

A Field of Specialized Generalists

The pervasiveness of geographic methods and the applicability of the spatial sciences in so many different fields might suggest that most outside geography view the field as a utilitarian driven enterprise, one wrapped up in a handful of software companies. The view is vastly different than that of a trained geographer, or even the so-called enthusiast or hobbyist. The science and tools of Geography are a piece of the problem solving equation, just like math and physics, but the exact tools and means of use are less prescribed.

Geographic method is often necessitated through questioning and as a means to an end. For example, what can be done to reduce poverty in my city? How can we affect policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Where should I relocate my business? Or, how can I improve the life expectancy of the people in my community? These questions are inherently spatial, but often the questions are conceived by specialists in unrelated fields seeking solutions to problems. In depth knowledge of the specific problem itself is often required, in addition to spatial knowledge.

Data Analyst + Writer + Graphic Designer + Database Administrator + Front-End Programmer + Server-Side Developer + UIUX Expert + Subject Specialist + Statistician = Modern Cartographer

Geographers serve to bring their expertise to a wide array of problems and issues and are conditioned to look at the world through a different lens, one that is focused on spatial methods, tools, laws, and algorithms. Ultimately, the preceding has made Geography a field of generalists solving problems in a world of specialists. For example, modern cartographers, trained in spatial thought and design, are asked not only to be aware of geographic methods and cartographic principles, but also serve as writers, graphic designers, data analysts, statisticians, database administrators, front-end programmers, server-side developers, and UIUX experts in communicating spatial content and answers to the non-geographer.

This leads to important questions. How do we, as a field, guide Geography and communicate the importance of Geographic thought and process in larger organizations? Where do specialized generalists fit into these organizations? In what areas can expertise be shared, and what areas do Geographers own? How can we build a knowledgebase that serves to educate non-geographers on methods, tools, and concepts associated with spatial problem solving? Answering these questions is critical to the mission of a field so pervasive and universal, and crucial in spreading understanding of geographic thought. To the world:

Knowledge of geographic fundamentals leads to better data, better analysis, and better decisions.

Sharing the Geographic Knowledgebase

Spatial scientists are tasked with advancing the field and also tasked with distilling the field into components that can be utilized to allow non-geographers to intelligently answer questions using the concepts and principles of space. This is an important and challenging task. There are many methods to do this. The point is to erase a history of complacency and fear of technology by owning the field and actively declaring expertise. When it comes to sharing knowledge, distilling information and components for non-Geographers is important. Demand is there, see the proliferation of online Map Schools, Map Academies, and community-driven Mapping meetups.

Perhaps a modular approach in teaching non-Geographers is best, but one that can only be designed and run by trained geographers, educators, and field experts well versed in geographic theory and history, keeping a focus on concepts that are manifesting through the tools, and communicating and conveying the small pieces of a larger field that apply to the specific task at hand. The science of geography just so happens to be a fantastic complement to an incredible number of other sciences, especially in the modern context, this should be something leaders in the field own, rather than shy away from, and work to build strong bonds across industries. A modular approach should be viewed critically, welcomed as a way to move faster than bureacracy and red tape will allow, but cautiously aware of oversimplifying the field. Meetups should not replace advanced theory, development of tools, and critical thought.

That said, an urban planner will not care about learning spatial analysis techniques with the goal of becoming a GIS Specialist, nor will they want to learn Python with the end goal of becoming a computer programmer, but rather care to learn Python and spatial analsis methods as a means to find answers and get results. The specifics might not matter, but knowledge of the concepts and tools in a practical and applicable manner are important. Parts of geographic thought and geographic technology are relevant to various fields, and getting this message to those fields is important. Non-geographers don’t need to get caught in the weeds, but need to know that the focus is approach, and there is no one answer to their problem.

“By making it easier, our clients think it is easier. It is not.”
Michael Batty

A New Marketing Department

As a field, geography is wide and diverse. You hear the terms neo-, paleo-, and even hipster thrown around regularly, sometimes with little unity. The field needs stop deciding between concepts and tools, and declare what it is: a cross-cutting, universal base of knowledge that needs sustained exploration and development originating from technological, scientific, and critical paradigms. Whatever the identify of Geography ends up manifesting as, it needs be unified and concrete, one that can be used to not unite practitioners and professionals and also serve to build a better picture of what is required to build, develop, and implement geospatial solutions and answers in a modern location-driven society.

The tool vs. concept debate misses the point, geography is both.

Geography and GIS shouldn’t be viewed as an exclusive group for those only with proper training or enough money to pay for an expensive software license. (This hasn’t treated us very well in the past…) Software is only a part of the picture, just as fundamentals and concepts are only a part of the picture. The ability to communicate this to non-geographers and non-enthusiasts is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for the geographic sciences to address.

The debate surrounding the Geography and GIS is not tool vs. concept, the field is both. The debate is more on the best ways to build a robust knowledgebase and tool infrastructure for the future. Research is need on best solutions for automated data management, and topics such as automated generalization, projection, and spatial analytics such as correlation and hot spot analysis. The mission should be to continue building the core of geography, developing new techniques and methods to address spatial problems, and then manifest these techniques and methods through new tools that make it accessible to non-geographers. The field of Geography should proudly stand as a field of specialized generalists, or generalized specialists, and unite to solve problems in a world that is increasingly dependent on location and spatial thought.

The Land of Coding: Cartography and the Embrace of Technology

Somewhere in the past few decades, cartographers have lost the control of cartography. How could this happen? Can we get it back?

This past fall, I co-taught an introductory GIS and Cartography class in a department of future urban planners. Many great questions were brought up and discussed through the duration of the course, some I would hear more than others. Two of the biggest questions were often in tandem. “Should I learn to code?” and more specifically, “what language should I learn to code in?” My answers were always, “Yes, you should!” and “Anything!” – The reasons for these answers are obvious, I suppose. Learning to program involves a paradigm shift, and you have to be taught what this shift is and should look like. Learning one language will allow you the paradigm that you need to pick up other languages more efficiently. Once you can change and establish your basic assumptions, it becomes a classic example of the law of increasing returns. A coder learning new functions is much like a linguist learning new verbs.

Perhaps the most important professional attribute one can have in our modern society is the ability to learn and pick up new technologies quickly. When learning a new technology, don’t focus on the tool itself as much as the concepts and fundamentals that manifest themselves through the tool. Same goes for coding. Many of the basics from one language to the next, or from one library to the next, will transfer, not to say you won’t have to bury yourself in syntax references for a while.

To an extremely visual person, learning to code can be a tough task. Taking yourself from the world of visually choosing colors from a palette to being more concerned about what specific hex codes are is not a very scintillating prospect, and going to a place where you generalize a map by creating an algorithm consisting of “if and for” loops quite frankly sounds super boring. One has to get to the point where it becomes a puzzle and you are using the pieces to help solve a task, do this and you will no longer see just a string of strange characters.

Much to my dismay, and unfortunately to the huge detriment of the field, geographers, and specifically cartographers, have been slow to embrace coding. I would largely attribute this to the fact that the history of cartography is very visual. The craft and science has revolved around the illustrative, visual representation of location and earth for hundreds, if not thousands of years. While fundamentally scientific, in practice cartography is an ultimate exercise in communication and design. In the 1980’s when GIS was beginning to take hold and technology started to explode, software made really (like, really) ugly maps, leaving many cartographers to write it off, think of it only as a data utility, then quickly return to familiar and well-known visual mediums for geographic representation. As such, we have lost our hold as the creators and keepers of maps. Cartographers, as such, did not embrace coding as a new tool for creating maps. This in hindsight was a monumental mistake.

Because maps and location are so prevalent in society, the field did not die, but it must now be shared with computer scientists, data programmers, and professions everywhere that may have little knowledge of the intricacies of geographic data, longstanding cartographic conventions, and proper spatial science techniques. Is this a bad thing? I don’t know, probably not. Cartography, even if it goes under the guise of “infographic” or “data visualization” has seen a renaissance in the last ten years as location-based services and spatial data management and visualization software has exploded. Some have even argued a golden age. Can we take back control? Probably not in full. Can we embrace what it has become, absolutely.

In many professions, coding is a buzzword, but to those in the spatial industry, be it geography, visualization, planning, or whatever, get yourself in the proper paradigm to carry the field into the future. The professional world and nature of mapping have changed. To survive, you must have a useful, relevant, and utility-driven work belt, and make sure that being able to create and design through the use of code is one of the tools you have in it.