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Boundless Profiles New Data Scientist, Gretchen Peterson

Gretchen PetersonSay hello to Gretchen Peterson, our new Data Scientist. Gretchen has experience preparing and displaying data. Find out where Gretchen’s been, what’s she been up to, and where she plans on taking us.

Welcome to the team, we’re happy that you’re joining us. What will you be working on here at Boundless?

I’ll be developing and curating data products as well as helping to improve the overall user experience of OpenGeo Suite. I have a long history with data science — figuring out where to get data, how to manage it appropriately, and then how it would be best to gain understanding from that data. On the “understanding data” side of things, I’m adept at spatial analysis as well as cartography.

So just how does one become a data scientist?

It usually follows a circuitous path. In my case it started with a B.S. in Natural Resources, with an emphasis on GIS, from Cornell University. I later became a GISP. My career began with a lot of analyzing watersheds, salmon habitats, and other related things out in the Northwest. Along the way I got serious about cartography but never let up on the analytical side of things.

As a consultant, my clients were mostly interested in data and what it meant, so I learned as I worked. I always wanted to make sure we were using the right tools. Not just looking at maps for places where it looked like the habitat was good, but actually choosing models and nearest-neighbor algorithms and the like to truly pinpoint areas of concern and gain some knowledge of the potential for error.

You’ve also have written two books that deal with the craft of GIS map making — Cartographer’s Toolkit and GIS Cartography — what inspired you to work on those?

I figured there was a need to present people with color and typography options in an easy to compare way, with particular emphasis on mapping. As well as to showcase all the wonderful and unique things people are doing with maps these days. Plus, I had some free time.

Cartographer’s Toolkit deals primarily with presentation best practices, not so much the data side. I figure that if you work so hard on data and analysis but nobody understands it, then what’s the point?

Are you more of  data person or are you more about the way it all looks?

Hmm… I’m 60% about data and 40% about how it looks. Can I be both?

You’re almost completely in balance.

<laughs> “Almost.”

What were some of your favorite projects?

One of my favorite projects was creating basemaps for use in some business software. You’d think it’d be easy to create basemaps but it’s not. First, there’s the data. We had to look through over a dozen different data sources for the major data types — admin boundaries in particular have many iterations and many sources of authority.  We chose to use OpenStreetMap for much of the other data, so that was nice. It’s nice to have a whole database with so many different data types to potentially display roads, airports, buildings by type, and so on. Only once we had decided on data sources could I style it. It took about four months to complete. This is very fun, but of course has it’s own nuances and challenges.

What were those challenges you were facing?

Once we had developed a good basemap, I then had to tweak colors and things to create an alternate style, plus manage stylesheets for twelve regions (keeping track of different languages, different names) and three different world-views: China, India, and rest-of-the-world. Connecting to an OpenStreetMap database on Amazon Web Services via TileMill can take a while, so development of maps there need to happen on a smaller database or with query constraints to prevent each change from taking a long time to visualize. Then you have little problems — like, “Hey, there’s a weird artifact showing up at the mouth of the Thames.” — kind of thing to correct. Looking back it was such a challenge but lots of fun!

The sources of data must have been wildly different.

For the most part, OpenStreetMap mostly has it covered. It was more, like, what does India call this region and do they consider that region to be disputed whereas others don’t? Another complicating factor is fonts, as you have to use different fonts for different languages with different character sets and formatting — it gets to be a little hard to test if you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.

In that time, you must have amassed a huge knowledge of these regions without having been there.

There was a lot of that. Things I should have known but didn’t. Like the status of Taiwan, for instance. Politically, is it a part of China or it’s own entity? That was something I didn’t know before.

How much knowledge of a place do you feel a cartographer needs to have when documenting it?

If a cartographer doesn’t have knowledge of a place they’re working with then they can make mistakes. These might not be immediately recognizable to them, but it can lead to releasing an embarrassing product. However, if you are building a world map there are going to be things that you don’t know as much about. The responsibility of the cartographer, then, is to know when to ask local experts for help.

For example, I had to make regions out of the U.S. for one client. And they had to be regions based on where people live and work, where they are likely to spend their time. I don’t know much about the midwest so I sub-contracted that part of the work to people who live in the midwest who could double-check the regions I had made. I mean, my regions were based on good data, but nothing substitutes for a good pair of local eyes!

What are your tools of choice?

I use whatever is needed. I currently love to do finishing work with Inkscape because you can create a lot of nice effects without much fuss and the filters are extremely fun to play around with. TileMill is pretty good too in that you can make bulk changes just by copying and pasting things as opposed to clicking on a lot of buttons like you would have to do in a GIS.

Out of curiosity, why Inkscape vs Adobe Illustrator?

Because it’s free. I used to do the month-to-month Illustrator license but then I realized Inkscape is comparable but free. I wasn’t an expert at Illustrator prior to my switch, so it wasn’t painful because either way I had to learn. If you already know Illustrator, though, I could see it being difficult to switch!

What’s your experience in using open source tools?

I’d describe my experience as novice but with great enthusiasm for them. More specifically, I’ve used tools like git, GitHub, CartoCSS, GRASS, and QGIS in the past, but not to the extent that I would like. I’m pretty sure that working for Boundless will ameliorate that!

Did you start out using Esri software?

Yes, I started with ArcView 3.

Have you ever used OpenGeo Suite?

I’ve used PostGIS and QGIS. I’m excited to jump into learning all of OpenGeo Suite and I’m already starting to see the value of GeoGit.

What do you do when you aren’t at work?

I recently became interested in skiing again after a long hiatus. I used to ski as a kid but had a lot of bad experiences. Now that I’ve taken it up again, I realize that, as an adult I can stay on the blue runs (the medium-hard runs) and have fun, though people who are out their first day sometimes do better than me. I’m slow but it’s all about having fun, right?! I go to this place where people come in their cowboy hats and sometimes jeans. It’s so low-key. It’s great.

Are you a world traveller?

I do like to travel and I’m able to do so maybe six times a year. Lately I’ve been going to various places in California. I just came back from London, but that was just for sightseeing. It was a blast. I like visiting both cities and rural or nature areas. I love to hike and campout but I also love to see NYC, London, and San Francisco. It’s all good. Our country’s natural resources and our cultural resources are both things to be enjoyed and cherished.

Let’s finish up with an interesting fact about yourself

Hm, interesting fact. Uh, I eat like three breakfasts? Then not a lot for dinner. I couldn’t tell you why. I’m just very hungry in the mornings. <laughs>

Another interesting fact I once had an internship where I used to walk around a little island censusing common tern babies on Oneida Lake in New York. I had to drive a boat to get there. So I had an internship that required boat commuting.

Are you a licensed boater? What kind of a boat is it?

I didn’t have a license, no, but I was probably the best boater out there. Those fisherman can be rather reckless. It was just a small little motor boat. Nothing special. It had a hole in it and my supervisor told me that if i ever got stuck in the lake and it leaked too much, to just gun it back to shore.

Any last words you’d like to add?

Just that I’m enthusiastic about doing data science at Boundless!

Interested in joining Boundless? We have an amazing team of passionate, creative, and incredibly bright people and we’re hiring more!