Andrew Hill: “What are the limitations of what we call a map?”

Andrew Hill headshot
Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill (Twitter, website) is Senior Scientist at Vizzuality and is responsible for innovation, education and community engagement at CartoDB.

Andrew was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You hold a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. How did you get into mapping? Do you consider yourself a “map guy”?

A: When I was an undergrad, I started working on a project to study the spread of influenza. As part of that work, we were using Google Earth to map how different mutations spread around the world and what host species were responsible. They were pretty ugly, but they were new and definitely got a lot of people in that field thinking about data visualization and mapping. I ended up doing a masters in epidemiology, where I learned Python and PostgreSQL/PostGIS. At that point, I feel like I unknowingly sealed my fate to work on data visualization and mapping. In my Ph.D. I shifted to focus on the overlap of big data, data visualization, and global biodiversity. Maps weren’t really a specific topic in any way, my advisor just encouraged me to play with data and scientific questions and see what would emerge. So much of that play ended up taking place on maps.

With all that being said, I don’t consider myself a “map guy”, no. I just like to experiment and to solve puzzles. It is something I really learned to appreciate studying biology. I look for problems and just play with them until I get something interesting and worth sharing. I’m confident it is a skill totally outside of maps, but maps are fun.

Q: You work at Vizzuality, where — as the name suggests — you focus on data visualization. What do you say to those who say that data visualization is not “real GIS”?

A: I should confess right now that I’ve never taken a GIS course in my life. To me, GIS is a lot of things, visualization only being one of them, that all together give us the ability to gain insights from geospatial data. “Real” or “not real” seems like a rather silly distinction to make (unless you are struggling to give a justification for why you don’t do any visualization). I do think that data visualization is advancing fast. While many of the fundamentals remain unchanged, new technologies are giving us ways to see data like we never could before and it’s helping us extract the stories hidden within. I think the challenge for GIS now is to ensure that the methods we use lead us to telling stories that are truthful. This is especially important the further we venture into a world of dynamic and animated maps.

Q: You talk about the future of mapping. Will data visualization and data analysis further diverge in the future? Does “GIS” artificially clump together disciplines that are otherwise separate, just because of the spatial component in the data being handled?

A: Have you ever read E.O. Wilson’s Consilience? For all the criticisms of that book, I think it gives a nice and simple way to think about how knowledge emerges from diverse domains of study. In this case, it seems obvious that GIS and visualization come together because they can give us insights that neither domain could give us alone. Where the two domains overlap is an area still not fully explored. A lot of the exploration has been progressing lock-step with technology, in particular web technology. So I feel that this is just the beginning, not the end.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: Labels, they come and go. A few of my co-workers call me hipster not too infrequently. They mean it in the kindest way though… I think. The word “shun” might be an extreme here, but if you are defining geohipster as thinking outside the box and engaging in dialogue outside of the mainstream, then sure, that is where I want to be.

Q: What do you think about some Geohipster readers’ concerns that “geohipsterism” (and hipsterism in general) implies exclusivity and elitism and engenders division?

A: Does it? I’m a social dunce so I might be the worst to comment on this. I guess, the times in life that I’ve felt most excluded from a group it has been because of people not labels. I’m sure some sociologists would pick a fight over that statement. But really, do geohipsters want to be exclusive? I doubt it.

Q: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation? Who/what is part of it?

A: It’s funny, with biologists, when you talk about GIS you talk about things like Mantel tests, kriging, niche modelling and of course mapping. I collaborated with a couple groups in school that were doing shit like, comparing the microbial diversity in extreme environments to see if they were more related to one another an ocean apart than they were to local communities a few meters apart. These questions mixed geospatial proximity, genetic distance, community composition and all sorts of nuance. Then they’d be like, oh, can we map this!? Those are the death metal groups of geospatial data handling. The mainstream is latitude & longitude and most of us are part of it.

Q: We first met when you gave a CartoDB presentation in Philadelphia. I was impressed by the technology. Where is this going?

A: The development of CartoDB moves really fast. As always, we are trying to make it easier for you to turn data into maps. We just launched some new services to turn things like IP addresses or Postal Codes into geospatial data. We are pushing hard to make it easier for teams to work on CartoDB. We are also releasing new public map pages, so you don’t even need a website to share your maps and create community discussions around them. Those are all happening right now.

In the medium term, we are aiming to lower the bar for nonprofits, startups, and students to use the platform. We think there is a beautiful ecosystem of doers and creators, and we want to give them a tool that really makes their work shine. We are just finalizing new ideas to make this happen and should have some announcements soon. We are also trying to make sure that we see the original mission of Vizzuality flourish in CartoDB. That means making the world better through our work and the work of those who share our vision. It means finding better ways to tell the stories that matter.

That leaves the longer term. I could spend a week talking about this part of the answer alone but am going to spare you. In 2013 we spent a lot of time figuring out what the mappers of 2014 would want. We built our roadmap around that vision and got to work. Now suddenly here we are, a few months into 2014. I think we did a pretty good job and became a driving force for dynamic maps on the web. We aren’t finished and have a lot more we want to develop. While development continues we are going to be forming a vision for 2015 and beyond. Two years ago, could you have guessed where online mapping would be today? It was only about two years ago that we put the SQL and CartoCSS editors into CartoDB’s browser-based mapping interface. I remember writing a query in my browser and seeing the map display the results live, it blew my mind then and still blows my mind sometimes today. But look how far it has come. Our vision for the future is still coming together, but through experimentation, collaboration, and honest desire to navigate uncharted water, I know we will be in the right place when we get there.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Geohipster readers?

A: There are a lot of reasons why geo is so in-focus right now, mainstream or other. Maybe a major one is that maps seem to be the right proportion of truth and deception to make data accessible, to make data approachable, and to contextualize otherwise foreign concepts. Whatever the reason though, journalists, data scientists, artists and many others are picking up maps as a regular tool in their work. The exciting part isn’t really that more people are using maps. What’s exciting is that a small portion of them, but still more than times gone by, are thinking about how to break maps. Asking questions like, what are the limitations of what we call a map? Where can we change the notion of a map to enable new types of knowledge transfer? How can we bend map technology to do totally new and unexpected things? These people are pushing maps into the future. These people make this such an exciting time to work in this field.


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