Interview with Renee Sieber

sieber_smallRenee Sieber is an Associate Professor at the McGill School of Environment & Department of Geography at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Renee was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Atanas Entchev: Geohipster was started as a call to gather under one roof geo developers pushing the boundaries of various new technologies. It has attracted 3,540 visitors from 43 different countries in its first month. Most of the traffic comes from North America and Western Europe, but we also have visitors from Pakistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Senegal. What do you think accounts for this interest?

Renee Sieber: Age and background may be important to answer this. I wonder if these are GIS professionals who are grappling with the new technologies as well as ways to convince their bosses that there needs to be new technologies incorporated into their everyday practice. In this way, it’s people who are well-versed with spatial analysis and the complications of such. They understand the importance of geometry and topology but know that there are new tools and techniques out there that can aid in spatial data handling and representation. So the interest is from people who are coming together for greater understanding of what’s necessary to keep up and they’re finding common cause with the neogeographers and neocartographers who have built some of the tools.

It may be simply a rebranding of the term of neogeographer as well; out with the old neo and in with the new neo. Or not. Neogeography has been the domain of the engineer and the physicist–those who love the cartography and are comfortable with the tech but feel that the geographic understanding is too much baggage (who needs them projections?). This is the cool space for the analysts.

It should be mentioned that neither the geohipsters nor the neogeographers may reflect on the social implications of their work. Maps are cool; spatial analysis shows you cool associations. Tobler’s Law lives but not the underlying reasons why things are clustered or not. At least, I hope the geohipsters understand the modifiable areal unit problem. I really hope they grapple with power of what maps show and what they don’t. Who Google Map Maker serves and who it doesn’t. The ethics of doing analysis and mapping and not merely the cool. To go all political, the libertarian ideology underlying “anyone can use it, so if you can’t use our transparent GUI then it’s your problem. If your area is not mapped then it’s not my fault.” The deserving spatial analysis and the undeserving.

AE: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1019 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster? Is this a brand new term or are there hipsters of old?

RS: I like that hipsters are trying to think of new techniques to improve on data handling. I’d like to think they “get” the special nature of spatial data. Instead of treating spatial data as 2 columns in a spreadsheet or something that can generate pretty pictures, they understand the importance of scale and aggregation. I do worry that hipsters are replicating old problems, like trying to attribute causation when they drill down through the layers. That learning the tech is all that matters, as opposed to a deep understanding of the geographic content.

Would I consider myself a hipster? No, but I would consider myself out of the mainstream. I don’t do much GIS anymore. I frequently rail against GIScientists for failing to consider the negative social implications of technology, particularly as they embrace big data. I’m certainly outside the mainstream of the Critical GIS/geoweb folks who I believe use quite alienating arguments in their search of the pure social critique. I guess I associate hipsters with an excessive trendiness (and unfortunately, an excessive amount of maleness, but perhaps that’s for another day). I love geoweb tech as much as the next person but I don’t want to necessarily be branded by it.

Are there hipsters of old? I don’t know. Maybe geohipsters are the newest incarnation of Dangermond’s power users.

AE: You talk about “tribes” in geo. Are Geohipsters a tribe?

RS: I ignited a firestorm at the AAG annual conference a couple of years ago when I said that there were tribes around geospatial data handling/analysis/representation/modeling and the Ironsheep/Floating Sheep followers were in the wrong tribe if they were graduate students. I’m not so sure that’s correct anymore, although doing geospatial anything for fun is a sure ticket out of academia. With the advent of big data, followers need to be even more invested in the computational algorithm. Of course, the algorithm these days relates to data mining and harvesting and streaming and not necessarily shortest path analysis. But it’s still the math that matters and computer science achieves even more importance in geospatial data handling than before. All of that background to say that geohipsters are a proto tribe. The moment there’s a specialty group or a conference then it’ll be a full fledged entity. Then the internecine (within and without) warfare can truly begin.

AE: You say that hipsterism is disdain. What are Geohipsters disdainful of/towards?

RS: Disdainful of a single product/platform way of handling data. Therefore, disdain for traditional GIS. Disdain for the people who say “It took me so long to learn GIS; why should I learn anything new?”. The geoweb upends much of what we think of as data handling as well as data sources. Potential data sources are so different now. The idea that you can overlay Twitter data on a road network and make that meaningful is a sea change both in the heterogeneity of the source but also in the value of volunteered contributions. You can now infer where unreported roads are from thousands of pings of in-car navigation devices. You can abandon the traditional road network entirely for the all-volunteer Open Street Map base. Or you can add to your data with your own remote sensing devices, like drones (don’t get me started on the geosurveillance problems with drones, even if they’re used for “peaceful” purposes). Or you, a human might not be getting the data at all: in the Internet of things, locational things can talk to and learn from other locational things. So hipsterism is a disdain of people who “don’t get it” in terms of the sea change.

AE: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation?

RS: We’re in a moment of flux, where existing users/developers are trying to come to terms with all this new hardware/software/data. While I think that geohipsters is a reaction to the mainstream, the mainstream is also changing. So it’s not always easy to identify what one is railing against. Used to be .SHP/.DBF but now XML? I’d like to think that mainstream will be the rigorous analysis that produces the choropleth map, a map that supports fundamental geographic principles. So depart from the old tech but adhere to the traditional principles. To return to an earlier idea, one important mainstream principle should be a reflection of who is hurt and whose agenda is served by what is being done. So wear the fedora as a nod to the outsider status but the other clothes remain the same.






One response to “Interview with Renee Sieber”

  1. Neil Avatar

    “Maybe geohipsters are the newest incarnation of Dangermond’s power users.” NOOOOoooo! 🙂