Year two at Stamen

As you may have noticed, I’m not really using this blog as a blog anymore. All my recent blog posts are geowebchat transcripts. If you want to read my occasional blog posts that are not twitter transcripts, I’ve tagged those with “not_geowebchat” for your convenience.

I don’t have time to write blog posts anymore. And today is no different, so I’ll make this short. But I thought I should write something. Apologies if this post reads more like a grab-bag of links and screenshots (FYI, all images are clickable links). For a more structured post, maybe check out my interview at the Geohipster blog.

new map stencil

Last week I hit the two year mark at Stamen Design. (No, I didn’t write a blog post at year one). Those two years have flown past, and this continues to be the most amazing job I’ve ever had. So, what have I been up to?

At Stamen we do data visualization and custom cartography. Clients hire us when they need help understanding some complex dataset, or when they need to communicate data to the public in ways that are compelling, insightful, and beautiful at the same time. I get to explore and process all kinds of geographic data, write code to turn this data into interactive maps, and work with designers to figure out what the maps should look like. Every dataset is unique, and every client’s needs are different; it’s an endless stream of new and exciting puzzles to figure out.

One of my favorite recent examples is our visualization of the impact of climate change on bird migration for the Audubon society. Their scientists used climate models to predict the future migration ranges for hundreds of North American bird species. We took their data and made shareable animated maps that showed how much range these birds would lose and (potentially) gain.

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At Stamen we use open data and open source tools to make these visualizations, so I also spend a lot of time working on the basemaps that underly many of our projects, for example updating Stamen’s distinctive “Toner” style.

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We also designed brand-new basemaps for CartoDB, an online visualization tool which lets anybody make their own data-rich maps:

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Those were just a few of the projects I worked on. Here are a few more: mapping methane leaks for the EDF, a map of ocean protected areas in the US and Canada, mapping the arts landscape in Detroit, visualizing urban water resources around the world.

Many others weren’t public, or haven’t been made public yet. In other cases my contribution is mainly behind the scenes. One of my other favorite Stamen challenges was collecting social media activity to feed into our CaliParks.org website. The algorithms we developed to harvest the social media resulted in some fascinating geographic patterns, but none of these maps made sense to include in the user-facing app.

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With every project there are opportunities to explore, experiment, and create glitches that test the limits of our tools and our designs. These are some of the most interesting outcomes of the Stamen process, and frequently the most fun.

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Often it’s possible to make beautiful new maps by building on the work of others, remixing existing maps and tools with a couple of lines of code:

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All of these projects involve collaborating closely with a team of brilliant colleagues at Stamen. None of our projects are solo endeavors, and working with great people is one of the special pleasures of being at Stamen. The teams are small, but the list of colleagues is a bit too long to list here. There’s also a lot of pride in carrying on the Stamen reputation established by all the Stamen alumni before us. Some of them I still haven’t met, but nonetheless it feels like we’ve all been working together (just separated a bit in space and time) to build something special and lasting.

When it comes to amazing people I’ve worked with, I do want to mention by name Zach Watson, who we lost tragically and unexpectedly last year. Many other people were much closer to him than I was, but I got to work beside him for my first year at Stamen and learned a lot from him. It’s a small consolation that Stamen helped found the Zachary Watson Memorial Education Fund in his memory.

Teaching and speaking

We are very lucky and privileged to do what we get to do at Stamen, and I’m glad that education and knowledge sharing is a core principle of what we’re all about. In the last two years I’ve co-taught a couple of classes about web mapping at Parisoma, and given guest lectures all across the Bay Area: explaining OpenStreetMap to cartography students at SFSU, talking about digital mapping and the city to Urban Studies students at USF and designers at the Stanford D-School, speaking to art students at UC Berkeley, running a mapping workshop at CCA, and a teaching workshop for the UC Curriculum Institute. Many of those presentations were in conjunction with my education-and-outreach partner-in-crime Beth Schechter. A bit further afield down in L.A., I also gave a talk to design students with Jon Christensen at Cal Poly Pomona.

This is all in addition to the usual conference attending: Association of American Geographers, State of the Map [1] [2] [3], NACIS, FOSS4G [1] [2], and a few that that I haven’t attended before, like DataEDGE and the Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) conference. Closer to home, I also gave a brown bag research talk at the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco.

So, it’s clear that education and outreach is important at Stamen, and this includes hosting OpenStreetMap editathons in the studio once in a while.

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Of course one of the biggest educational projects I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with is Maptime, which was just getting started by Beth Schechter and Camille Teicheira right at the same time I started at Stamen. Maptime is a grassroots, beginner-focussed series of mapping meetups that quickly grew well beyond its humble beginnings at Stamen. This was due in no small part to the energy and enthusiasm of Lyzi Diamond who joined as an organizer not long after Maptime’s founding. There are now Maptime chapters in cities all over the world, and it’s been fun to visit a few of them in Vancouver and Chicago on my travels. A lot has been said about Maptime elsewhere (like, for example, from Lyzi herself), so I won’t say much more here. After two years of helping to coordinate Maptime’s growth, and after giving a co-keynote with Beth, Camille, and Lyzi at the CalGIS conference, and after we organized our first Maptime Summit in NYC, I’m starting to ramp down my involvement with Maptime, assured that it’s in very good hands. I’ll still be involved on the Maptime HQ Board of Directors as we go through the process of getting nonprofit status.

The dissertation

Yes, I am also still working on my PhD dissertation at the University of British Columbia. Yes, I will finish it someday. I need to thank my dissertation committee for their patience and indulgence, and also thanks to Stamen for helping me find time here and there to keep making progress. Anyhow, ask me about it some other time.

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While I’ve been at Stamen, my dissertation research has had some interesting spin-offs, like the map above which shows every line that ever existed in the OpenStreetMap database. This map won first place in the See-Through Maps exhibit which was part of the Mapping and its Discontents symposium at UC Berkeley. We later showed a version of the map at the Istanbul Design Biennial and I included it in an article I wrote about OpenStreetMap for SPUR’s magazine The Urbanist.

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What’s in store the next two years? Plenty of exciting new Stamen projects are in the works, and who knows what other new projects will come through the door that we haven’t even imagined yet. Stay tuned to the Stamen blog, and follow me on Twitter, Flickr, and Pinterest for more frequent updates and teasers like this one:

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One Comment

  1. Anthony
    Posted July 14, 2015 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    So inspiring to see your progress Alan, thanks for sharing! I dream of a job like yours and knowing you once did as well reminds me that with passion and dedication anything is possible!

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