Shoreh Elhami: “GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers”

Shoreh Elhami
Shoreh Elhami

Shoreh Elhami is the founder of GISCorps, a URISA program that coordinates the deployment of volunteers to communities in need around the world. GISCorps was endorsed as a program by the URISA Board of Directors in October 2003 and since then has attracted over 4,000 volunteers from 98 countries worldwide. To date, over 950 GISCorps volunteers have served in 175 on-site or remote missions in 61 countries.


Shoreh was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: So, Mrs. Elhami, where are you located and what do you do?

A: Shoreh will do!

Q: You are the boss, so it will be Shoreh!

A: I’ve lived in Central Ohio for 29 years; the first 11 years in the City of Columbus, and then moved to Powell — a small suburban city north of Columbus. I work for the City of Columbus Department of Technology; my title is Citywide GIS Manager.

Q: Shoreh, how did you get into GIS? You are / were an architect at one time, correct?

A: Yes, I studied architectural engineering in Iran (where I was born and raised) and practiced as an architect/ urban planner for a few years before we decided to leave the country. I was introduced to GIS at the Ohio State University where I ended up going to graduate school to study City and Regional Planning. I applied for a Research Assistantship position and was assigned to a project that used GIS for studying and analyzing the impact of urban sprawl on a protected watershed. Talk about luck as not only did I end up working on an interesting project, but also learned how to use GIS to conduct analysis. It meant no more drawing / overlaying polygons on mylar and calculating results by hand; I was in love!

I was then offered a job shortly before I graduated, and ended up working at a planning agency where I used my GIS skills for building models and conducting a variety of analytic models for a County Master Plan. This was in the early 90s when GIS was not used as often in a master planning process, so it was a unique and gratifying experience.

Q: What does a Citywide GIS Manager do in Columbus, Ohio? I’m not sure we’ve ever interviewed one. It sounds like something that can make you have fits upon occasion.

A: At the City of Columbus, GIS is used in almost every department, both on desktop as well as online. We have over 300 datasets,+/-100 data editors, and 30 or so GIS applications which are all supported by my team. We work very closely with GIS users and decision-makers on creating new datasets, maintaining the software, geodatabases, and designing applications. Our most recent project is our Open Data Portal. It’s a work in progress, but it is where anyone with interest in Columbus GIS data can visit and download data. In short, it’s an exciting and at times quite a challenging job!

Q: Sometime around 2001 you started this small thing called GISCorps. Why? What does it do?

A: Yes, it was in 2001 at the URISA conference in Long Beach when I started talking to a few colleagues about an idea which later on became GISCorps. The idea was and is quite simple as it’s about making one’s GIS skills available to entities that need GIS assistance but cannot afford to employ GIS professionals. Originally, I thought most of our projects would be on-site and involve teaching. However, we learned very quickly that our volunteers’ skills are very much needed after disasters. In fact, our first few major missions were launched shortly after the 2004 Asian tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, and then Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We recently launched our 176th project, and over 950 volunteers have been deployed to those projects in 61 countries. The majority of these projects are conducted remotely (80%) and +/- 40% have been in response to disasters. We currently have over 4,000 registered volunteers from 98 countries. It’s worth to mention that for on-site projects, we always make sure that the travel expenses are covered by the organization that is requesting assistance. For remote projects there are no [travel] expenses, as volunteers work from their home / office, using their own equipment.

Q: When you started there weren’t a lot of volunteer organizations around. Now there’s HOT and Ushahidi. What makes GISCorps different? The same?

A: You’re right, we are the old kids on the block as far as GIS volunteering goes! Several new organizations were formed shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and we actually collaborate with several of them via a relatively new organization called Digital Humanitarian Network or DHN. I think what differentiates GISCorps from other organizations is our recruitment model. We take time to not only select candidates from our extensive database, but also for almost every project (except large crowd-sourcing ones) we get on the phone and interview volunteers to make sure they are the right person for the job. We take that quite seriously, as our volunteers’ work represents who we are. Another distinction is that a large percentage of our volunteers are hard-core GIS professionals and ready and equipped to perform all and any GIS-related tasks. Having said that, we also engage in projects that do not require a lot of GIS skills (mostly crowd-sourcing projects) and many of our volunteers enjoy those efforts as well.

Q: How many people do you have helping you run GISCorps? The organization is a non-profit, correct?

A: GISCorps’ business is run by a Core Committee, which at this time has seven members. We meet virtually once a month, and at least once a year face to face.

We are a program of URISA, and since URISA is a non-profit organization people who donate to GISCorps can benefit from our 501(c)(3) status.

Q: What was the best mission of GISCorps? Assuming you can pick the best one.

A: Please don’t ask me to do that, as I have many favorites; it’s as if they ask you which one of your children you love the most!

Q: So with all of that going on — there are more important things to discuss. What’s the best Persian meal you make?

A: Seriously? You’re asking me about my culinary skills?! Actually this may be surprising to some of your readers: I love cooking, and if I may say so — when I have time — I can deliver pretty nice dishes. My daughter loves my Tahchin the most, so I pick that one. You can check out a recipe (not mine but somewhat close to how I make it) here.

Q: We talk about people being geohipsters — our best definition is: doing things differently, or making a difference in the world of GIS. So are you a geohipster?

A: If getting joy and satisfaction from spending time on geo matters that helps others is doing things differently then I’m a geohipster! But I really want to be clear — and this is not self-deprecating — GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers; that’s who is making a difference. We, the Core Committee, are just instruments to help make that happen.

Q: The last question is yours — anything you wish to tell the world?

A: The world? That would be too audacious of me… All I know and believe in is that we are here on earth for a flicker of time, and we should focus on using our skills on doing good. That’s all that matters!


Machiko Yasuda: “You’d be surprised how much spatial thinking is involved in something as basic as selling and shipping things”

Machiko Yasuda
Machiko Yasuda

Machiko Yasuda ( is a journalist-turned-web developer, who especially likes writing Ruby.

She loves to teach and organize. She has taught bike safety, web development at General Assembly and coached at Rails Girls. She helps organize a pair programming meetup and Maptime LA. Outside of work, she likes rock climbing and is currently obsessed with learning about alignment and Nutritious Movement.

Machiko was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?

A: I currently work in Los Angeles at the Reformation, an eco-friendly women’s fashion company. Reformation makes “clothes that don’t kill the environment”, and I make apps that help the in-house team and factory design, manufacture, and ship clothes around the world.

Q: How did you get attracted to mapping?

A: When I was little, I onced asked my parents for an e-mail address and my own domain for my birthday. I always wanted to “work for a big website” but didn’t know how. I chose colleges by comparing how professional their daily newspapers looked, and immediately joined the Daily Bruin at UCLA to work on their site. We mapped local crime data from the police logs, but that was about it.

I always wanted to get more into web mapping, but without a geography degree or an ArcGIS license I felt like I had no options. In 2010 though, at my first full-time job out of college at a daily local paper, I learned about Google Fusion Tables and that really changed my life. I found myself mapping census data with Google Fusion Tables, even converting latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds from the National Park Service into decimals in Excel — because I didn’t know any other way. That’s how I got into mapping and code.

I couldn’t answer this question without a shout out to all those early tutorials and open-source tools I first used: Google Fusion Tables tutorials from John Keefe at WNYC:,  SHPEscape for converting data formats:  and for colors.

Q: You are one of the co-organizers of MaptimeLA. Tell us how and why that happened, and what keeps you going back.

A:  After I got my first apprenticeship at a software start-up, I heard about the original Maptime in the Bay Area. I had met many developers through the local tech meetups, but not many interested in GIS and maps. I wondered, out loud, on Twitter, whether LA could start a Maptime. A few months later, Alan from MaptimeHQ contacted me with others who were also interested. Voila! That’s how MaptimeLA started.

MaptimeLA grew out of a handful of local map enthusiasts from all sorts of industries — architecture, software, transportation, environment, consulting, local government, social justice, to name a few — and we all have a love, a rather nerdy sort of love, for Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is a vast, often confusing, sometimes intimidating, mysterious place. Mapping and meeting people from other corners of LA are two ways to explore this city, and that’s what I think brings people back to Maptime here.

You can see through the maps we make at MaptimeLA, whether it’s maps of historic restaurants or food banks, that everyone’s trying to visualize their appreciation for LA and share it with others.

Mapillary's Johan explains the workings behind the app to MaptimeLA at Opodz
Mapillary’s Johan explains the workings behind the app to MaptimeLA at Opodz

Q: You are representative of a new generation of software engineers for whom GIS / spatial / mapping is just one of many tools in their arsenal. Will a GIS / mapping skillset be to the office worker of the future what typing is to the office worker of today? Or is it already?

A: I work in e-commerce and tech, and you’d be surprised how much “spatial thinking” is involved in something as basic as selling and shipping things. Whether it’s querying addresses and calculating distances, visually displaying geographic information, or estimating employees’ commute times, offices have a lot of “spatial needs”, as Ken Jennings calls it in his must-read book on different kinds of mapping nerds, “Maphead”.

In Ellen Ullman’s 1997 book, “Closer to the Machine”, she talks about how graphical user interfaces of the Internet and in particular, spreadsheet software, embolden users by being able to bring shape to data. ( ( The 2000s equivalent, I believe, are open source mapping tools.

Q: Along the same lines, you are representative of a new generation of software engineers who “do GIS” outside of the Esri ecosystem. What do you think about open source? Is open source the future of computing?

A: I wouldn’t have been able to learn GIS without open source software and tutorials — starting with Google Fusion Tables, QGIS, GDAL, ogr2ogr, Leaflet, Mapbox, and more. I already see a lot of friends in small non-profits using free tiers of Google Maps and Google Fusion Tables to create maps for their own without much coding necessary. The abilities to gather data, map boundaries, layer data and publish it are the new spreadsheets.

The more we can build mapping tools like OpenStreetMaps to involve as many new people as possible, the better for everyone.

I remember when I first moved to a new neighborhood two years ago, I noticed that on Apple Maps, my neighborhood was spelled incorrectly. “Del Rey” was spelled “Del Ray” everywhere. “Del Ray Blvd.”, “Marina Del Ray Elementary,” and “Del Ray” as the neighborhood. At the time, I did not know anything about OpenStreetMap, but was still able to somehow easily log in and request a spelling change. And now it’s fixed:

Everyone these days knows about Wikipedia, but not very many of even the computer-heads know about or use OpenStreetMap. I hope Maptime can change this.

Q: In his infamous rant about cloud computing, Oracle’s Larry Ellison says: “The computer industry is the only industry that’s more fashion-driven than women’s fashion.” Do you agree? Why / why not?

A: Agreed. In the computer industry there’s an even higher level of pretentiousness that comes with all the hardware and software choices you have to make: Mac vs. Windows, vim vs. something else, mechanical keyboards vs. everything else, and in GIS, Esri vs. everything else. I’ve found that at Maptime especially, that attitude drives people away and we try not to do that by making sure our tutorials and workshops cover as many operating systems and libraries.

Q: What is the normcore of GIS?

A: I don’t know how to answer this! Maybe Google Maps? It’s so ubiquitous, at least for us in developed areas. It’s plain, it’s unpretentious, it’s basic.

Q: As befitting to a geohipster, you cycle. Tell us why you do it.

A: Unlike most Angelenos, I didn’t get a car and a driver license at 16. I didn’t drive for all of college at UCLA and used a bike instead. As an especially unathletic, non-active, map-obsessed and tree-hugging child, biking was perfect for me. I got a scholarship to become a bike-safety instructor — where I got interested in hands-on teaching as a form of advocacy.

Q: On closing, any final thoughts for the GeoHipster crowd?

A: Cheers to another year of much mapping!


The Special Tool

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow

Mike Dolbow is a GIS Supervisor for the State of Minnesota and the operations manager of the Minnesota Geospatial Commons. He has served on the GeoHipster Advisory Board since 2014.

This past summer, I put a new set of stairs on the end of my deck. In the grand scheme of home improvement, it was a small job, but I’d never done anything like it before, so there was a lot of cursing, achy muscles, and extraneous trips to the hardware store. But that’s how I roll: chuck the manual and learn by doing. I’ve found that understanding your own learning style is a surprisingly underrated secret to success.

In a way, I learned that secret from my dad, who also made sure I had the skills to figure out how to get a job done with the tools available. He told cautionary tales about how my uncle would often dismiss a potential project because he thought “you need a special tool”, or it simply couldn’t be done. The way my dad saw it, that was a poor excuse for not doing the job. Sure, having a “special tool” would make it easier, maybe even faster. But if you had the will, you could find a way to get it done.

My uncle passed away years ago, but my dad and I still honor his memory with a running joke about “the special tool”. You see, now that he can afford some of those tools, he takes a sick pleasure in buying them for me. That way I don’t have any excuses when it comes to my own home improvement projects.

For example, the first Christmas I was a homeowner, he gave me a basin wrench. I looked at it and was like, “Dad, what the heck is this thing?” He replied, “Mike, that’s the special tool!” He proceeded to explain how important it would be in the upcoming faucet replacement jobs I had planned. And once I looked at the old, rusty supply-line nuts under the sinks of my 1915 St. Paul home, I knew he was right: the basin wrench would save me tons of time.

The original special tool: a basin wrench
The original special tool: a basin wrench

But if I hadn’t had it, I would have found a way.

Years later, he gave me his old carpenter’s square shown below. Could I have drawn that angle on the 2×4 without it? Sure. Did it save me time because I had it? Absolutely. And I’m sure there are also a bunch of hyper-specific tools that might have saved me time in adding those stairs. But if I had waited around to acquire every single special tool that would possibly aid in the process, I’d probably still be working on it now.


So, what does this mean in my day job at the intersection of IT and geospatial?

Well, if it’s not obvious by this point, I’m going to be wary of anyone who says they absolutely need software X,Y, or Z in order to get a job done. Listen, I’m going to tell you my requirements for a finished product. I’ll try to get you the tools you need to get there, but ultimately I don’t care how you get there, you have to figure it out.

With developers, I cringe if I hear them say stuff like, “I need a fully loaded Eclipse IDE with a local JBoss server and plugins for Git, Maven, Spring, and Hibernate pre-configured.” Well, for one, I barely know what some of those things are, but for the small web apps we build, I’m thinking you’re only going to need about half of them. Heck, if you really know what you’re doing, you ought to be able to write a decent app with Notepad++. But I simply can’t guarantee that you’re going to have the exact suite of tools you had at your last job, and you’re going to have to adjust.

On the geospatial side, I get concerned if someone says they need the full Esri stack to get anything done. “No, I don’t just need ArcGIS Desktop, I need the Advanced level. I also need an ArcGIS Server install with enterprise ArcSDE at 10.2 and an AGOL subscription.” Well, that adds up to some pretty hefty maintenance fees very quickly. If I just need a map of our office on our website, most of those tools are overkill.


Ultimately, I guess I can’t blame people for wanting to work with the best tools available: whether you’re talking Esri, Microsoft, Oracle, Mapbox, or Google, there’s some amazing stuff to work with out there in the IT and spatial worlds. Having access to so many amazing tools is a tremendous modern luxury. And if you’ve had a tool before, I know it can be hard to go without it. But sometimes, your favorite “special tool” won’t be available, and I might not be in a position to change that, even if the reason is simply “bureaucracy”. So let’s make sure we know enough about the problem to fix it with whatever we have at hand. After all, we’ll never run out of problems to solve.

Besides, the best tool you’ll ever have available is the one you’ve been using since you were born: your brain. So let’s put it to work, get the job done, and learn something along the way.

Maybe next time my dad will give you the basin wrench.


Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Ralph Straumann

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.


Ralph Straumann

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a senior information management consultant with Ernst Basler + Partner in Switzerland as well as a Visiting Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) of the University of Oxford in the UK. In my day job I consult clients regarding effective and efficient data infrastructures, data processing, and information-centric workflows. With the OII, I work on various topics in the field of Information Geographies, e.g. who and where produces, disseminates, accesses, and reproduces information on the internet. Besides these topics, I have a strong interest in information visualisation, and cartography, obviously.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: My map in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar is part of a small series of maps and visualisations in the Geonet project of the OII. My collaborator, Mark Graham (Senior Research Fellow at the institute), and I started the series with an updated version of the OII internet population map, or rather: cartogram. This was followed by an analysis of how internet access has evolved over time, both from a global and explicitly spatial, and a more regional perspective.

Further, we wanted to look specifically into those countries and territories that tend drop out of internet population maps because of their very low internet penetration rates. Thus, we mapped the places where internet penetration is below 10% (i.e. only 10% of the population have accessed the internet at least once over the last year) or for which the World Bank offers no data or estimates. Seeing the shape of it, we called this region the Archipelago of Disconnection.

To highlight this region and the implications to a wider audience, Mark and I came up with this very simple map design and a very subtle colour scheme. Because the message of the map itself seemed so powerful to us, it didn’t need much embellishment or emphasis. The Archipelago of Disconnection is geographically centred on Sub-Saharan Africa where 28 countries have internet penetration rates lower than 10%. To think that in these places very few people have access to all the vast online resources that much of the rest of humanity is so accustomed to! Effectively, these countries and their residents are largely barred from participating in the cultural, educational, political, and economic activities that the modern internet affords. This is what Mark and I wanted to draw attention to.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: Quite simply, the data we used encompassed the World Bank’s Worldwide Development Indicators dataset and spatial data from Natural Earth (a fantastic resource!). The input data needed some work in order to make the identifiers of territories truly congruent (not all of them are well-defined and globally agreed upon).

Then we used ArcGIS 10.3 to design the map; the overall production involved clearly much less work than the aforementioned cartograms. I somewhat atypically opted for manual labelling as I found tweaking labelling placement rules did not give satisfying results with a sensible time investment.

All in all, the map which can be seen in full detail here (with accompanying text and the annotations the calendar team opted to remove) is a pure ‘GIS map’.


'Archipelago of Disconnection' by Ralph Straumann
‘Archipelago of Disconnection’ by Ralph Straumann