Pros and Cons to OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap is a map of the world, created by people like you and free to use under an open license.

That’s OpenStreetMap’s (OSM) opening lines to their free-to-anyone spatial database.

Yes. You read that right. Free spatial data!

If you’re looking for spatial data you can’t get from an authoritative source (i.e. city, county, state, or federal agency) for free, then OSM data may be worth using, especially if you’re working in a part of the world where getting local data would be difficult due to language barriers or just simply there is a lack of data.

But before you do so, let’s go through the pros and cons of this popular spatial data source.


  1. It’s free! Complete and truly free to use. You can download a whole world of data (approximately 803GB as of June 2017) by snagging the weekly copy of Planet.osm. Once on your computer, you are free to do with it what you like. Load it into a QGIS or ArcMap document and symbolize as you see fit. You can even edit the data. It is truly all yours.
  2. Related to the first point; the data comes with no strings attached. When you read my first point, you may have thought: “What’s the big deal? Google Maps, Bing Maps, and other web map services are free, too.” True, but Google Map data is *not* available for download. You can contribute edits to Google Maps, but that doesn’t mean Google will give data back to you.
  3. OSM often has richer data than other free map sources. For example, someone might have digitized all the hydrants in your city. Or all the best dog-friendly businesses. Or, if you are like me and ride your bike everywhere, all the barriers a bike-rider might encounter when getting around town.


  1. Data quality is spotty. Because OSM depends on volunteers, literally located all around the wold, data quality and consistency is haphazard. In places where a community of local mappers make a concerted effort to improve the database, you can get some stunningly detailed and accurate base maps (i.e. San Francisco area).  Where they don’t…well, let’s just say, you get what you pay for.
  2. Very little, if any, metadata is associated with OSM layers. Are the bus routes current? Who knows.
  3. Data is not authoritative, obviously. In the United States, OSM’s road network was derived from U.S. Census data. So on the national level, the road network is fairly accurate, complete, and authoritative. You can rest assured that the data went through some sort of data quality check with the U.S. Census and comes with a statement of accuracy. However, most other OSM layers are not. While someone may have digitized every tree in your town’s parks, there’s no way to tell if they accurately identified a walnut tree from a spruce.

In a nutshell, OSM data is great to have when you’ve got nothing else. Even when you do have access to something better, you may want to download the latest OSM layers. For example, I’ve used OSM’s building outline layer for the San Francisco Bay area, because, frankly, those industrious volunteers have already merged the nine SF Bay area county databases for me.

Another great reason to use OSM is that they support mapping efforts throughout the world. With their Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), they even try to help folks with efforts like their Malaria Elimination Campaign. While some tech companies claim to do no evil, HOT actually does.

Here’s a nifty info graphic of the Pros and Cons to OSM.

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We recently moved to Rohnert Park, a small (north of San Francisco) community of roughly 41,000 people.

I love it here. The town is bikeable and walkable. By bike, I can get to the local grocery store in less than 10 minutes and to my bank in less than 15.

And in less than 20, I can walk to Cotati’s newest SMART train station.


SMART Train at the Rohnert Park train station 6-29-2017

The Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (or SMART) started special service this summer, transporting folks from Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Though a start date for full, regular service has yet to be announced, if you were lucky, you might have managed to snag a ride during one of SMART’s free ride days.

On the first day SMART was open to the public, I wasn’t so lucky. But I still wanted to take the ride down to San Rafael. So, I decided to do it virtually – via a map.

Go ahead – click on it! You know you want to…

Of course, I had to add some spatial analysis and data.

Using both ArcMap Desktop and ArcGIS Online geoprocessing tools, I determined a (driveable) 5 minute service area around each currently-to-be-opened station and then added some basic demographic data to those areas (shown in green blobs, dark shades indicate a larger population served).

The summary tab at the bottom tallies the total potential population served (within 5 minutes of each station), the average household income of that population, and averages the population diversity index (the larger the number, the more likely two random folks are not of the same race).

Feel free to zoom in and explore the map. It’s interesting (to me, at least) to see the difference of service areas surrounding each station. For example, Rohnert Park’s 5 minute service area is smaller than Cotati’s (presumably because it’s faster to get around Cotati than Rohnert Park). This leads to a lower population served by Rohnert Park (9,873 people) versus Cotati (29,449 people) even though they are only 4 minutes (1.24 miles) apart.

Some thing tells me the Cotati train station might be more popular than Rohnert Park’s station.

Until we all get a chance to ride the train, what other insights might you find on this map?


Upcoming Fire Training

For all you fire bugs in California, there are three upcoming training sessions you may not want to miss. Take note:

2017 Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX)

Slated for October 2nd, 2017 to October 15th, 2017 in Orleans, California, this training will provide participants with experience on how to plan and implement controlled burns, protect communities from wildfires, and prepare for managing wildfire for resource benefits. Complete the application here.

Please note: you’ll have to pass the arduous pack test (3 miles, 45 minutes, 45 pounds). S-130, S-190, FEMA IS-100b, and FEMA IS-700a are also required prior to attending the training. However, these can be completed online. And don’t forget your full PPE!

Courtesy of Lenya Q. Davidson

NorCal TREX – 2017

Another similar training (with the same requirements as above) will be held October 17th, 2017 to October 28th, 2017. This one will be held throughout Northern California depending on personnel availability and the weather. The aim of this training will be to work together to share and build experience in prescribed fire practices, fire effects, and other conservation efforts affecting forest and grassland in northwestern California. NOTE: This training will be managed as an incident using the Incident Command System.

If interested, apply here.

Courtesy of Chris Ferner

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX)

For all the awesome ladies in fire, there will be a women-centric training in Yosemite National Park from October 9th, 2017 to October 21st, 2017.

The training will be organized as an incident, using the Incident Command System. Participants will serve in qualified and trainee firefighting positions on a burn team and will assist with preparing, scouting, briefing, igniting, holding, mop-up, and patrol on numerous controlled burns in the area. The training team will also complete pre- and post-fire monitoring, train with equipment, practice fireline leadership skills, and learn about local fire ecology and fire management. The work will take place in diverse ecosystems in and around Yosemite National Park. The training will include field trips to areas burned in recent wildfires and to prescribed fire and fuels treatment project sites, as well as presentations from local scientists, land managers, and practitioners, and women who are leaders in various aspects of fire management. In addition, participants will practice preparing for media interviews.

Yes, all the same requirements for the normal TREX training apply to this one, too.

Male or females can apply here (though a higher portion of females will be selected from the pool of applicants).

Sadly, I will not be able to attend this year’s WTREX as I will be in New Zealand. But next year, I’ll be there!

All training sponsored by the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, BLM, CAL FIRE, UC Cooperative Extension, California Fire Science Consortium, USFS, and FLN.


If you hang out on LinkedIn or any other social media platform, you’ve seen them: infographics – an amalgamation of graphics and text that tells a story or delivers a witty message.

Here’s one you might mistaken for a map:

Boulder is for Fun Map/Infographic

This example definitely tends more towards an infographic rather than a map:

Benefits of Regulated Marijuana

As a GIS Specialist, I don’t often think of my maps as “infographics”, but, essentially, that’s what they are. If I am more careful with my map designs, I might be able to convey more information than just want’s on the map.

Recently, I needed a map to convey the evolution of national and local fire planning policies and plans. Rather than try to color-code temporal data on a single map, I created a timeline:

While simple and not as elegant as the previous examples, it conveys some dense information clearly.

Conference Season!

Most years, I usually watch the conference season from afar.

But this year I get to join in the fun. Below are the two I shall be attending. How about you?

CalGIS/LocationCon 2017

  • May 22 – 24, 2017
  • Oakland, California

This year’s theme is “Building Bridges” and is co-hosted by CalGIS (URISA) and LocationTech. This year’s conference will host a diverse schedule and attendees. The CalGIS community tend to represent GIS best practices in government, non-profit, education and consulting in California. The LocationTech community represents folk who develop advanced location aware technologies via collaboration with commercially-friendly open source software.

This conference will meld the “old” with the “new”. I’m excited about learning more. The three-days are packed with lots of talks, sessions, and trainings.

ESRI’s UC in San Diego

  • July 10 – 14, 2017
  • San Diego, California

ESRI’s User Conference (UC) is probably the largest gathering of GIS professionals anywhere in the United States. The last one I went to was over 10 years ago.

This year’s UC boasts over 300 hours of moderated sessions and over 450 hours of training.


I won’t be able to attend all five days of the conference, but I do intend to be there for the bulk of the week and learn as much as I can from my peers and industry professionals.

I’ll report back on each. Until then, enjoy all the opportunities to travel.

Nor Cal Rx Fire Council Annual Meeting – 2017

It’s that time of year again! Local firebugs are congregating in Petaluma, California.

March 7-8, 2017

Lucchesi Park Community Center, Petaluma, CA

I’ll be there, will you?

Check out the particulars here.

The organizers have a full agenda with some amazing speakers lined up. Carl Skinner (USFS, retired) will talk about historical fire regime shifts; Christine Olsen from the Oregon State University will clue us all in on what the public really think about smoke from Rx fires; and Sasha Berleman will highlight some local resources folks here in the North Bay can utilize for cooperative burns. There are more speakers, but those are the three I’m looking forward to hearing from.

Don’t forget to register here.

See you there!

Living Atlas

Late last year, I attended one of ESRI’s webinars about their relatively new data product: Living Atlas (click on the link to access the archived recording).

It be honest, I’m not exactly sure how it is different from all the other online content they provide. However, during the webinar, they promised more precise (and better) aerial imagery. They called it DigitalGlobe Basemap +Vivid.

I haven’t seen that data product – yet. I imagine it will be folded into their World Imagery layer?

Regardless, the webinar did remind me of all the great content available on ESRI ArcGIS Online. While some data layers are suspect and should be avoided, those from trusted sources with complete metadata provide easy access to information I would otherwise have to go hunting for from original sources.

If you are like me, often you just need a reference layer to orient yourself to a place or discover things nearby. Adding layers from ArcGIS Online to my desktop working document can help with that process.

To learn more about all the data ESRI offers online, click on the picture below.

What happened to 2016?

My last post was almost a year ago. What happened to 2016? It went by in a flash.

Regardless of how much I’ve neglected my website this past year, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update it with… stuff.

GIS/Software Advancements… or not

ESRI continues to lead in the desktop-GIS environment. As much as QGIS remains the go-to open source alternative, ArcMap along with ArcGIS Pro, remain the industry standard for government and private use. No matter how much folks would like to disrupt the status quo, that’s pretty much what we have to look forward to in 2017.

Web Mapping

Just about EVERYONE is jumping on the web mapping bandwagon. In addition to ESRI’s ArcGIS Online services, there are a host of other companies offering the same (and sometimes better) web mapping services. This past year I tried Carto (was CartoDB). You can check out my public profile here. I haven’t added very much; just a couple of boundary layers. I can say that the interface is very easy to use and the base maps as accurate as Google Maps. The free account version automatically makes all your data and maps public. One aspect of web mapping that I like is that many of the services have tools to help you interpret your data and not just symbolize it. It is definitely taking GIS to ‘the masses’.


To drone or not to drone… that was the big question for 2016. And while many folks have purchased a drone (they are nifty), they are not as ubiquitous as we all thought they would be by now. One of the biggest draw backs of owning a drone is what to do with all that data. Software to accurately process all the imagery can be expensive. While there are many applications where drone surveys are reducing costs, if you aren’t just going out to make a quick movie, gathering data via a drone can end up being more complicated and costly than you might expect.

And the commercial use of drones is still not without controversy. The new FAA rules (effective August 29th, 2016) mandates some limitations that might make gathering the super accurate data you were after a little more difficult.

Women in GIS

My colleagues and I continue to bring together women working in the field of GIS and geospatial industries. Recently, we’ve had an influx of interest to pursue our causes. Together, we came up with this cool graphic to show what Women in GIS means to us. Check it out:

As a fund-raising effort, we hope to have products emblazoned with this graphic in time for the 2017 conference season.

Cool Map

Throughout the year, I am exposed to some pretty nifty maps. Some are static maps, while others are interactive (in real life!).

Here’s one that I thought worth sharing:

An Atlas of Electricity

Until next time, enjoy the end-of-year festivities and may 2017 bring you contentment and success.


Women in GIS

Last year, I joined Women in GIS, an advocacy group geared towards helping women and minorities navigate their careers in geospatial industries.

Actually, it is more accurate to say that I got (willingly) sucked into an administrative role with the organization. I’m managing their website and I’ve conducted a few interviews. While we don’t have a lot of content on the site – yet – I have high hopes. Right now, a group of women are working hard to develop an organization that will be useful to their members and inspiring for an entire field.

However, we are just a bunch of volunteers. We don’t exactly have a mission other than to network and support each other. Kind of like a big, global therapy group. Sometimes, I wonder if Women in GIS is even needed.

So…why are we form a group?

Good question

Like many tech oriented fields, women tend to get marginalized where men have traditionally dominated.

GIS – Geographic Information Systems – is a field born from the proliferation of computers. In 1962, Roger Tomlinson, often touted as the father of GIS, began the first steps of cataloging natural resources in Canada. In doing so, he created the first GIS.

It is important to note that GIS has a father, but not a mother. Why is that?

In the 1960s, though women were starting to make strides, only 38% of us went to work and we traditionally occupied positions less cerebral than men. Many of us working at that time just didn’t hold the kind of jobs that would put us in place to do the kind of work to develop an entirely new computer system. It wasn’t just that we weren’t working, but we weren’t professors, surveyors, or engineers.

By 2004, women accounted for 60% of the labor market, and we started holding more tech-oriented, managerial, and professional positions.

Woohoo! Good for us, but last year, in California, Governor Brown did something astounding. He passed a law prohibiting employers from forbidding their workers to compare wages and the law also required equal pay for similar work regardless of gender.

Let’s back up a bit and think about that.

In the year 2015, just about 100 years after the women’s suffrage movement started in United States, a governor of one of the largest states in said union had to pass a law to ensure women were compensated equally for their work.

We should be embarrassed. After so many years of fighting for equal rights in the work force, women shouldn’t still have to be protected by a law. It should be standard business practice.

But it is not just about equal pay. It’s also about who is doing the work. Women remain under-represented in the information technology industry. Just take a look at this handy graphic put together by National Center for Women and Information Technology:

btn_04032015_webWhile women make up more than 50% of the educated work force, we hold less than 30% of the jobs in computing. The numbers get worse the higher you go up the corporate ladder, with only 6% of Chief Information Officer positions being held by women.

As an Hispanic woman, I’m especially appalled by the last statistic on this graphic: Only 1% of the computing workforce are Hispanic women.

One percent!

There is no reason other than sexism and racism (either overt or unintentional) for these numbers to exist. While I like to think we are all playing on the same field, with the same resources, and similar connections, we are not.

One is a lonely number

So, why form a group advocating for women and minority voices in GIS?

Because if we don’t, our voices will not be heard. Like other tech-oriented industries, GIS relies heavily on computers and it is easy to not see us. Anyone working in GIS is somewhat annoymous. Though metadata helps to attribute data to individual GIS professionals, industry maps rarely attributed to their creator. It is not easy for a girl, trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, to see us – to see women in GIS and geospatial roles. They see women as models, actresses, waitresses, nurses, but when are they going to see a female GIS professional? Unless we go out and actively recruit young women and minorities, our industry will remain white, male-dominated.

So, let’s stand together and be seen. Join me in bringing the world to every girl’s attention.

2015 in Review

The new year is only a couple of days away, and I thought it would be a good idea to review all the projects I worked on in 2015.

But instead of doing an article here, I utilized ESRI’s Story Map templates to walk you through all the places I’ve have the opportunity to work in.

To be honest, I didn’t go to all the places listed in my story map. For most, I simply created maps from the comfort of my home office. But I had the chance to visit Ethiopia (twice), Kenya, and Chile this year. And though it wasn’t for work, my husband and I visited Pacific City, Oregon as well.

How I Did It

In case you were wondering, utilizing ESRI’s Story Maps is fairly simply, but it does require an ESRI ArcGIS Online account. If you don’t have one, you can’t do it. But if you do, in a nutshell, here are the steps involved in creating an interactive story map:

  1. Log on to your ESRI ArcGIS Online account and create a new map. Choose a base map that best works with the data you intend to upload. For example, earlier this year, I created a Censorship on the Internet Story Map. Because of the “dark” subject matter, I went with the ESRI’s Dark Gray Canvas. It features white labels over gray continents on near black seas.
  2. Next, upload your data. You can upload a geodatabase or shapefiles, but your shapefiles will need to be in a zipped folder.
  3. Once the data is loaded, you’ll have to symbolize and configure any data pop-ups. ESRI makes this fairly simple, but if you don’t get it right the first time, you can always change the layer parameters by hovering on the layer name. When the edit icons appear, choose among them to change the symbology or functionality.
  4. If you are happy with how your map looks and functions, the next step is to save the map (title it, add tags, and describe the map) and set the sharing option to public.
  5. To create a Web Map, you can do this several ways and you can even create a Web Application (similar, but different). But for now, let’s keep it simple. With my project story map, I decided to host this on ESRI’s account server (my address is I also decided I wanted a simple Story Map that just walks people through the various projects I worked on for each month of 2015. Here are the steps I went through to create my story map:
  6. From the My Contents page, click on the ‘Create’ drop-down arrow, then click on ‘Apps’, and then finally on ‘Using a Template’.
  7. A pop-up window will appear called ‘Create a New Web App’ and it asks you “What do you want to do?” Below that, click on ‘Build a Story Map’.
  8. There are several option here. I went with the Story Map Journal because I like how it combines text, images, and the map in a vertical scroll. I could have went with the Story Map Tour, but I don’t have images for each of my projects other than the maps I created themselves, which I don’t want to share (because of client confidentiality concerns).
  9. Once you click on the template you want to use, you have a choice. You can either host it on ESRI’s server – the ‘CREATE APP’ option – or ‘DOWNLOAD’ the template html and javascript files and host it on your own server. I’ve done it both ways. Each is fairly simple to use, however, I like hosting it on my ESRI online account because then I can manage all my web maps via one interface (rather than keep track of the backend stuff on my server). So, for this exercise, I chose to ‘CREATE APP’.
  10. Fill in the title, tags (these help folks find your map), a summary of what your map conveys, and then specify where you want to save it (depending on how you have your account organized, just use the default account folder). You can use the same info you entered when you created your online map above.
  11. Once you click ‘DONE’, you are taken to the online Map Builder. Depending on which template you chose, you’ll be presented with several options. From here on out, it is fairly intuitive, but can get complicated. This is your chance to create your masterpiece! Take your time and utilize photos. You can save your work any time and no one sees anything until you make it public. For this story map, I went with a Floating Panel, I chose to use the online map I created above as my “main stage content”, and I customized each location based on the month I completed a project. Then I added text and pictures in the side panel. Alternatively, you can start out with an image or video. Get creative and make a story map that entices and intrigues by, well, telling a story!


Click through to visit the interactive map. You’ll get a chance to virtually travel the world with me.

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!