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 dms-usa.maps.arcgis.com). 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!

GIS Day 2015

A year has flow by, my friends, and GIS Day will soon be upon us.

Are you ready?

On November 18th, 2015, come join us at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa, CA for some map fun and spatial discussion. The North Bay GIS User Group GIS Day activities start at 9am and continue to 3pm. It’s a full day of presentations, exhibits, and virtual/real map exploration. There’s always something new to learn and discover.

If you register for the event early, you’ll be entered into a drawing for this cool poster from Griffin Map Design:


Or you just might win a virtual training course or a Sonoma County park pass (indispensable if you have a dog) or a 360Geographics trail map! I don’t think too may folks pre-register, so the odds are in your favor.

Hope to see you there!

Show Off

I don’t often get a chance to showcase my work.

As a consultant, much of what I do is confidential. However, at times, I get the opportunity to work for a non-profit or on a public project, and that means I can share.


Recently, I was approached by Friends of the Gualala River (FoGR), to create a few maps of the planned timber harvests adjacent to the river in northern Sonoma County, California. The challenge was to quickly and effectively show the currently planned logging areas with those that had been conducted in prior years.

The maps that accompanied the timber harvest plans looked something like this:

Portion of original timber harvest plan map (courtesy of CDF, 2014).
Portion of original timber harvest plan map (courtesy of CDF, 2014).

Serviceable, for sure, but the maps had a lot of data, were very hard to read, and it was difficult to determine context.

So, I was asked to take just a few key components of the map, and create something more visually appealing, and give a better sense of where the units were in relation to a seaside community and adjacent parks.

Here’s the result (you can click on it for a bigger version):

Created for FoGR, DMS, 2015.
Created for FoGR, DMS, 2015.

To be fair, I didn’t have to include as much information as the original map. The focus was to highlight the adjacent community and provide an aerial for context. Everything else was disregarded. I think it looks alright. What do you think? What would you have done differently?

To see more, visit FoGR’s post on the project.

Airports and Trails

Another project I recently got a chance to work on were the trail development options at the Truckee Airport District in Truckee, California.

Truckee Airport Trail Option map, DMS, 2015.
Truckee Airport Trail Option map, DMS, 2015.

The goal of this map was to show the trail development options in relation to the surrounding trail system and possible connection points.

Neither of these project were technically challenging, but it was nice to just create something that met my clients’ needs and I could share.

Story Maps for All

While I appreciate a well-designed paper map, there’s no denying that most folks hangout in the internet more often than not and rarely do we print stuff out anymore. So, why not do the same for our maps?

For the two projects above, I create two simple ESRI Story Maps:

  1. Gualala River – Proposed Timber Harvest Plans
  2. Truckee Airport District Trail Development Options

Story maps are interactive maps that use narrative (and sometimes pictures) along with a map to highlight a problem or solution. While I didn’t use the Story Maps to their full-potential, I hope from these simple examples you can get a glimpse of their potential.

If you would like to see more cool maps, check out the Interactive Web Maps link list to the right (if you’re on a desktop) or scroll down to the bottom of the page (if you’re mobile).

Geographers on the Bay


I have always wanted to go to an Association of American Geographers annual meeting. While a long time member, I don’t participate much in the organization, but going to one of the meetings has always intrigued me.

In my mind, I imagine the meetings filled with astute professors, students, and professionals discussing all the latest findings in geography and related fields. For some reason, in my head, they are all smarter than I am. If I were to insinuate myself into their ranks, they would  discover I’m not a real geographer and kick me out. What a nightmare, huh?

Because the meetings have been held on the east coast lately, I’ve been able to indulge my (ahem) strange fantasy.

In 2016, I have no such excuse (fear?) to keep me from going!

From AAG's 2016 annual meeting announcement.
From AAG’s 2016 annual meeting announcement.

The next AAG annual meeting is in San Francisco, just a stone’s throw (okay, a bit more than that, but you get the idea) away from me. It will be held from March 29th to April 2nd, 2016. I plan on registering. Will you?


Just a friendly reminder: GIS Day 2015 is rapidly approaching. On November 18th, 2015, the North Bay GIS User Group will again be hosting an education-filled day with geographic activities for school kids, a map poster contest for students, and presentations for adults. Join us for the entire day or just come for the swag (there might be t-shirts this year).

Did I mention it’s free?

Save the date and come join us at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa!

What’s that thing in the sky?

Is it a bird? A plane? A rocket?

No – it’s a drone.

From Wikipedia

Welcome to the world of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV for short) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS – preferred by government).

A little scary, isn’t it? I mean look at that thing – it’s got a camera and can literally go anywhere.

Well, technically, not anywhere. The U.S. FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has applied several restrictions for hobby users and will consider commercial use of a drone on a case-by-case basis. There’s a lot of unknowns about regulation of drones at the moment, but one thing is for sure – people are using them.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending CalGIS 2015 in Sacramento, California. I went to one of the all-day preliminary sessions specifically on UAVs and UASs. Many UAV vendors were anxious to show off their wares and tell us all about what cool things their drones could do for both large and small business.

I fell for it. Hook, line, and sinker.

Honestly, I want one. I’ve wanted one for a while now, ever since I saw this video:

I’m not a marine biologist, but like many of us, I am enamored with marine creatures and the footage above inspired me. Wouldn’t it be great if I could use a drone to inspect vegetation condition on a project or monitor potential wildlife habitat without disturbing the critters?

So, I’ve been on the look out for drones. I’ve been following their development and the FAA rulings, and when I saw there was a whole day of presentations just on drones at this year’s CalGIS, I knew I had to go.

I’m glad I did, because I found out three important things:

  1. There are here, folks. Commercially available drones can be bought and used today. Check out companies like 3DR.
  2. No one likes a drone invading their privacy.
  3. And safety cannot be overstated. Rest assured, you do not want to be the one to take down a small-engine plane when your drone gets sucked into their engine or propeller.

While I’m not quite ready to go out and buy one (yet), I will be approaching companies like GeoWing Mapping and Airphrame on how best I could start using UAV technology to provide my customers the most detailed and up-to-date map products available today.


The Fourth Part of the World

Today’s post will be a departure from my usual content. Below, I offer a book review on an historical map. While it may not seem relevant, I believe history is important, and history about maps even more so. Read on to learn more about the map that named half of the world.


The Fourth Part of the World, The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester

The Fourth Part (my abbreviation for that long title) is a hefty tome.  At 462 pages (hardback edition – yes, it’s worth it), including an index and notes, one might think a book so long about one map would be a slog to get through. But Toby Lester easily engages the reader by bringing the European Middle Ages to life.

The author starts the book with a preface that details why he started on a quest to research the Waldseemuller world map of 1507.

$10 million.  (It’s always about money, isn’t it?)

In 2003, the Library of Congress had just purchased the Waldseemuller map for $10 million dollars, 2 million more than the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. This fact piqued Toby Lester’s interest and six years later, he produced The Fourth Part.

The Fourth Part is divided into three parts: Part One, Old World; Part Two, New World; and Part Three, The Whole World. It also includes a Prologue, Epilogue, and an Appendix along with Notes and an Index.

Part One – Old World

In this section, Mr. Lester delves into the mindset of the early Medieval scholar. Their religious view of the world told them that the world consisted of three parts only – Asia, Africa, and Europe. They based much of their geographic knowledge of the world on what the Bible taught or alluded to. This lead to representations of the world that were rather limited and did not take into account knowledge gathered outside of their religious texts. However, just because those religious scholars might not have wanted to know anything beyond the bounds of the world set out in their religious texts, the world has a way of making itself known.

In the mid 13th century, the Great Khan Guyuk (widely known as Genphis Khan) announced to the western world (Europe):

Through the power of God all empires from sunrise to sunset have been given to us, and we own them.

What a surprising and frightening proclamation! Ultimately, the Mongol empire building efforts, along with the numerous Crusades to win back Jerusalem, led to more geographic information circulating among the European scholars.

Monks were sent to parley and Christianize the Mongols. Though they did not succeed in that venture, they did bring back cultural and geographical details that helped flesh out European’s sense of the world. Still, their view of the world consisted of T-O maps and mappamundi – rather poor representations of the world that excluded at least half of it.

It’s easy for us to look back and scoff at the inadequate maps that were produced in Europe before the 14th century. It’s easy to forget that most people were illiterate. Merchants and travelers didn’t have the benefit of a travel guide, nor were they able to produce one with their own knowledge because they didn’t have the skills or means to do so. What geographic information they gathered, it mostly stayed int heir heads.

The Christian monks that produced maps and cosmology (geography) texts at the time worked with the best knowledge available to them, but they were bereft of the great secular knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Roman Latins. Much of their knowledge of the world’s geography was more accurate, but it was lost to Europe’s Catholics (who were the keeper of knowledge at that time).

Example of a mappamundi. Click on the image above to see more.

Part Two – New World

In this section, the author chronicles the efforts of the great Genoese and Florentine mariners at rediscovering the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the 14th century, surprisingly detailed and accurate marine charts of Europe and North Africa emerged. Europeans also rediscovered Ptolemy and other Greek texts that helped piece the larger world together. With Portugal and Spain’s drive to reach India (as their overland routes were hampered by the Muslims taking control over the entire Middle East), maps of the known world were improved, and the thought of sailing west gripped explorers. So they did.

Part Two is the largest section in The Fourth Part, and contain the most fascinating tales. Any summary of mine will do it injustice. So, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

Just as one thing leads to another and starts a train of thought, while he was in Portugal [my father] began to speculate that just as the Portuguese had sailed so far south, it should be possible to sail as far west, and to find land in that direction. – Ferdinand Columbus (circa 1538)

This was the great age of discovery. When maps and the information they held started and decided wars, when the slave trade fed European’s insatiable hunger for more goods, and when there was a rivalry between nations at a fervor. It was only a matter of time before something earth-shattering would happen.

Part Three – The Whole World

The last part of the book, Mr. Lester explains how Walter Lud, Matthias Ringmann, and Martin Waldseemuller, all cartographers, came across one of Amerigo Vespucci’s letters that detailed his explorations of the New World. Though that letter was a fake, the three scholars and map makers didn’t know that at the time. They took it, and the information it offered, at face value. Together they created a “curious little book” titled Cosmographiae introductio (1507). This little book included a huge map (the largest known map to have been produced at the time), and it just so happened to haphazardly name the New World – America.

What struck me most while reading The Fourth Part is how religion has played such a huge role in our political, social, and geographic history. Of course, I already knew that. Anyone with any sort of education can see religion’s stamp on just about everything, but the author presents the motives (both religious and otherwise) behind the map makers and explorers in a manner that drives that fact home.

Conclusion? I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want a well-researched, yet concise, summary of the events that led up to the discovery of the New World – the fourth part of the world – then this is the perfect book for you. If you have any interest in history and/or maps, this is also a must read.

Mappy Hour

The other night, I participated in the North Bay’s first Mappy Hour, a social event designed to bring together GIS and map enthusiasts. The event was hosted by Griffin Map Design in his store/studio in Petaluma, California. We got to talk about maps without having to talk about work  – what a concept!


As a group, we explored interesting things we could do to bring prominence to maps and stories of place. I’m not entirely sure where Mappy Hour will lead us, but where ever it is, I’m sure it will be interesting. The event did get me thinking about how I could incorporate more art into my work.

The group also got a chance to peruse the maps and cartographic fusion with art Griffin Map Design offers for sale. I bought a wonderful print of the State of California that features oak leaves as well as a bag with a bike/world map collage.


We also talked about books. I know, not nearly as exciting as maps, but books about maps? What more could you ask for? I actually have quite a few books on maps. When I have time, I’ll post a few book reviews.

Overall, Mappy Hour was a great opportunity to see how maps can be used in creative ways to communicate information about a place that isn’t easily quantifiable. As GIS professionals and in this digital age, we forget that physical maps and cartographic representations have a long history of playing a key role in not only depicting the places we live in, but shaping our perceptions of them as well.

Bird’s Eye View of San Francisco, c1876 by SF Snow & May. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Back when the Golden Gate was just that, a gate with no Golden Gate ‘Bridge’.

Here’s to many more Mappy Hours.

Living With Fire

It has been some time since I posted about fire in our California landscape so I’ll give a quick recap.

In the summer of 2014, the King Fire in the central Sierra Nevada mountains burned close to 100,000 acres in less than two weeks. It is considered one of the worst wildland fire incidents in California history, prompting many in the popular media to predict the usual doomsday scenarios. So, I thought, let’s look at the numbers and see what they tell us.

I posted a quick article about how, indeed, given the small data sample available to me on recent fire history (from 1913 to 2013), fires have become more numerous and fire sizes (in terms of acres burned) have increased.

However, I failed to follow up on that post to illustrate that:

  1. those numbers reflect fire history during a period of intense fire suppression (a management policy born from human needs and fears, and do not reflect good land management practices), and
  2. an increase in fire size reflects those fires that started under extreme weather conditions in remote locations, guaranteeing they would escape suppression efforts to begin with.

I know that’s a poor substitute for an in-depth article, but you can read Fighting More Forest Fires Will Come Back to Burn Us by Michael Kodas, in On Earth. The author does a great job of detailing the controversy and the science (or lack of it) behind national fire policies (that inevitably influence state and local management policy).

The point is:

The rise in the number of fires and their sizes has more to do with our land management policies and human activity, than anything going on with climate change and/or our fire ecosystem. Fire has long played a starring role in shaping the California landscape and will continue to do so.

In mid-November, I wrote another post about the language used in media to describe forest fires. Public perception of fires are heavily influenced by how we refer to them. And whenever someone says things like:

I’ve never seen that before.

Please, for the love of all things green and black, do not take much stock in it. Think about it. Even a 40 year wildland fire veteran would not have seen it all. How could she? Our landscapes have been evolving with fire for thousands and thousands of years.

During a conference I attended last fall, Tamara Wall of the Desert Research Institute is trying to explore statements just like the one above. Her aim is to find out directly fire-fighters how they experience fire behavior, and how it changes throughout their careers. Remember, how we perceive something is based on what we expect and relative to what we have experienced before.

Living With Fire

I  hope that those two previous posts along with this one would bring us to a realization that fire in our landscape is at our doorsteps. It always has been and will continue to be so far into the future. And as our population balloons and more of us move into the edges of urban areas, we must all learn to live with fire instead of fight it.

In 1997, my post-graduate adviser, Paul Tueller (University of Nevada, Reno) and Ed Smith started a public outreach program called Living With Fire. It was initially developed for the Nevada landscape, but it has been adopted by many California communities. Along with the efforts of the California Fire Safe Council and the national Firewise program, these programs aim to educate the public on fire issues in their community, teach how to protect one’s home through defensible space and smart building material choices, and provide a framework to collaborate on larger, fuel reducing projects.

While these are all great, sometimes they fail on what I think is the most important issue facing Californian’s today – the lack of fire.

While protecting one’s home through defensible space is paramount in most people’s minds (and it should be, you shouldn’t expect someone to put their lives in the path of fire to save your home), what about the rest of the landscape?

Photo by Debbie Robinson (as it appeared on Ear to the Ground).

No matter how relieved the owner of the above house was after the fire, do you think they really want to live in that blackened landscape?

And what about homes that immediately abut other homes? And what about the 42% of California owned by federal and state agencies? And what about those large tracts of private land that no one seems to weed, let alone manage?

How do we protect all that land from fire?

The federal and state agencies task with managing our forests and wildlands cannot do it*.

The timber industry cannot do it**.

The military cannot do it***.

But fire can.

What? Fight fire with fire?

Prescribed Fire Councils began in the United States in the southeastern states of Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma. They quickly spread throughout the southeast when land managers and private land owners realized how great they worked. Councils in the west have been recently formed in Washington, Oregon, California, as well as British Columbia, Canada.

Their goals are to facilitate the use of prescribed fire to manage our landscapes – regardless of ownership boundaries and regardless of who wields the torch. They do this by working to change national, state and local policy, collaborating closely with regulators, and educating citizens on the use of prescribed fire. They also provide training venues for everyone (regardless of agency affiliation or lack of it).

In other words, they are doing everything they can to get fire back in its natural role in our landscapes. By allowing prescribed fire to do the heaving lifting of removing dead and dying material (that no one wants to buy nor can we pay to remove it all) and thinning excessive vegetation, the aim is to create landscapes resilient to fire. The idea is so when an unplanned burn does start (it will, we know it will), its effects are moderated (because of less fuel).

Yes, this means more smoke in the air.

Californians crow and covet their clear, blue skies. I know I do. I love them.

And haven’t we just spent the last forty years trying to clean up our air?

While it is true that prescribed fire will put more smoke into our skies, it does not mean a return to smoggy cities. Emissions can be estimated and plume travel tracked to optimize when and how a fire occurs to reduce smoke impacts.

This is what I mean by living with fire. It means all land managers implementing fire policies that allow us to use fire to live with fire.

I admit, that is a lofty goal. However, it is inevitable. Our landscapes are going to burn one way or another. Would you (i.e., land managers, private home owners, etc) want to be holding the torch when it burns? Or are you willing to give that up to some random arsonist or the weather?

Living with fire is not just about defensible space, but includes embracing fire as a land management partner.

* Federal and state agencies have been hampered by policy, and environmental and management constraints.

** The timber industry’s goals are not (necessarily) coincident with developing a fire-resilient landscape.

*** They have other wars to battle.




Getting Out There

No, I don’t mean stop reading this post and get outside to enjoy the great California weather (is it raining yet?). You can do that later.

What I meant was: let’s get OUT THERE. Beyond our moon and over 34 million miles away to the surface of MARS.

Click on the image for an interactive experience.
Click on the image for an interactive experience.

Click on the image above to visit Mars via ESRI’s interactive map of Mars, the fourth planet in our solar system. Who knows where we’ll end up next? Fancy a ride on a comet?

This concludes my posts on Geography Awareness Week. I hope I’ve sparked an interest in geography and the world around you.