Just for the Geospatial Fun of It

July 19, 2023

Sharing is Caring

Geospatial is our job. It’s what we do at work, for work. It is work. Maybe that’s your built-in equation at this point. GIS = work (or LIDAR = work, or remote sensing = work, or insert-your-geospatial-tech-or-activity-of-choice = work). No matter how much you love what you do, there is a grind involved, and sometimes that grind drowns out the memory that at one point, you actually enjoyed this stuff. You chose it and pursued it? It was fun?!

We fixate on professional development, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Ongoing improvement and expansion of your skillset is admirable (and marketable and, hopefully, profitable). But I’m here to also argue for (un)professional development: that in addition to building your I’m-an-adult-to-be-taken-seriously career trajectory, you also dedicate time to unserious, less practical, less peer-review-ready, dare I say it, frivolous geospatial activities. You make time for fun — mappy, unprofessional fun.

What do I mean? Well, you know how we often introduce our field by saying, “You can map just about ANYTHING!” I propose you do that. Map anything. And by anything, I mean something that isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, or community-serving, or life-saving, or money-making. Something motivated simply by “because I wanted to.” That’s right. It doesn’t have to have a socially or professionally acceptable reason behind it. Fun is the purpose. Curiosity is the purpose.

Students Know Best

Okay, students don’t always know best, but they are naturals when it comes to making mapping fun. Assign a choose-your-own-adventure project to an intro GIS class and you will see my point. At first, their laser focus on mapping the best skateboarding spots (including where you will and will not get yelled at), optimizing their holiday-themed ‘soda’ crawl route, or identifying where said college town would economically benefit from having a karaoke/roller skating/laser tag venue, seems silly — like a missed opportunity. But they are very much on point. They are embracing new-to-them technology and putting it to use with topics they relate to, are excited about, and find useful. And they are enjoying it. That’s how you make GIS and mapping stick: you enjoy it. And there’s nothing silly about that. (I should note that students also propose and complete plenty of topics like identifying a community park site, mapping economic disparities, etc. All of these topics are equally valid if they engage students and ignite their interest in the field.)

You don’t have to identify and fill a gap in the literature with your mapping. You don’t have to generate a town-council-presentation-worthy result with your mapping. You can map to explore your curiosities, whatever they may be. You can map to have a laugh, whatever your humor may be. You can map to have fun, whatever topic that involves. Students intuitively do this. We can learn that from them. And we can learn that from our former student selves.

Let Your Ideas Flow

When is the last time you mapped (or geospatial app-ed) for fun and only fun? Doing so requires that we see our area of “work” differently — that we see GIS and geospatial activities as an option for our downtime, not just our on-the-clock time.

So here it is. I dare you to map – JUST. FOR. FUN. In fact, I triple dog dare you. (*Audible gasp from the audience.*)

Before you tell me that you don’t have time, let me clarify that you don’t necessarily have to actually map anything. You can just think about mapping something. Take your fun/silly/bizarre topic and let your mind go, thinking about how you would map it. (What data would you need or collect, what would the output look like, etc.) There are benefits from just allowing yourself to think about it, to apply your professional skills to a superfluous idea, to give yourself permission to be silly with your professional skills — professionally silly. (By the way, do not Google first to see if someone has already done your idea. Remember, you aren’t filling a knowledge void and aiming for publication or monetization, you’re engaging your creativity. This is just for fun — your fun. Do it. And do it your way, with your vision.)

I’ll Go First

I can’t claim to always practice what I preach. This column is as much for me as it is for you. But it feels like I need to put myself out there to start us off, so I will share a few of my not-so-serious mappy ideas. I will share them with a professional geospatial audience, and I will try not to want to crawl under a rock once I do. I’ll share mine and then, maybe, you’ll join me in this endeavor and daydream about yours.

In the style of Elyse Myer’s “three (3) fake businesses I think should be real,” here are three of my frivolous ruminations for geospatial(ish) projects.

1)     Please No Hills. Love cycling but hill-climbing isn’t your strength? This app builds cycling routes that minimize elevation changes according to user-provided parameters, like how much distance you are willing to add to your route to be hill avoidant, acceptable gradient ranges from “I think I can” to “Absolutely never!” and adjacent points of interest/cafés to use as an excuse to stop — and not because your lungs are about to explode. (If you are about to tell me that Google provides terrain profiles for bike routes, a) see my note above about NOT Googling your idea before brainstorming it, b) don’t let the existence of something related stop you from dreaming, and c) this is a more niche vision that would allow for routes so inefficient Google might implode.)

2)     Place Name Bonanza. (Still workshopping the name.) Curious about the wide variety of place names? Ever wanted to structure your speech using only place names like this xkcd comic? This web tool is for you! Enter your desired phrase and see what place names can be finagled to cover the sounds and syllables of your communication. Dive into toponymy by querying life’s begging questions, like “how many cities have tree species in their names?” or “how many foreign city names appear in the US ?” This project is inspired by one of my favorite used book finds, the 1994 classic, S.N.I.C.K.E.R. (Same Names In Cities, Kingdoms, Empires & Regions) that compiles a rather exhaustive collection of grouping American city names in various ways, including by “Parts of the Body,” “Grasses,” and “Hot and Cold.”

3)     NLCD Paint-by-Number Kits. I have visualized turning National Land Cover Data into paint-by-number kits for years (and geologic data too for that matter). The colors, the detail, the abstractness — that’s the adult-coloring-book-equivalent I need in my life to hit a meditative state. I want to do this so much I almost didn’t mention it here, but gatekeeping ideas doesn’t get you anywhere. I clearly haven’t made it happen yet. Maybe now someone will and it’ll show up in my mail! (Am I manifesting right now?)

 I’ll stop now. This list goes on but I’ve embarrassed myself enough. I get lost in thought about silly map idea implementations and, honestly, I feel energized from letting myself do so.

Fun Maps Brought to Life

Enough of my brainstorming, how about some actual examples? Want to combine fitness with your mapping fun? Try walking and tracking all the streets in your city like Paul Heersink’s ongoing Toronto project. Interested in route building but in a more mythical sense? How about finding a better route from the Shire to Mount Doom? Or does cryptozoology fascinate you? Use Bigfoot sightings data to teach geographically-weighted regression techniques and it could even become publishable pedagogical research. Maybe you’re out and about and just want to know where you can “go." Or maybe you want to get away, like really away. A family of hikers developed Project Remote to determine and hike to the most remote spot in all 50 states. Is your sweet tooth fix a priority? Let’s talk donuts — from the geographic domains of major chains to tracking down local small business options, categorized by donut type availability, of course!

Let’s Play!

♫ I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a GIS profesh. ♫ (Sung to Toys-R-Us theme). We need to encourage ourselves to play, to be unprofessional at times, in order to make us better professionals. So tag, you’re it!


Sharing is Caring

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