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What would you like to do?

[Various details redacted.]

I'm currently about to start a Geography degree at the University of [Redacted] at [Redacted] with a focus in GIS, and I've been finding that I have an interest in working with imagery. Obviously I should take Remote Sensing and other similar classes, but I'm the type of person who likes to self learn as well. So my question is this: What recommendations would you give to a student who is interested in working with imagery? Are there any self study paths that you could recommend?

I learned on my own and on the job, and there are a lot of important topics in GIS that I don’t know anything about, so I can’t give comprehensive advice. I haven’t arrived anywhere; I’m just ten minutes ahead in the convoy we’re both in. Take these recommendations critically.

Find interesting people. You’ll learn a lot more from a great professor (or mentor, or friend, or tutorial) outside your specialty than you will from someone boring who’s working on exactly what you’re interested in. Don’t get insular! When I look at the people whose work I most admire in every field, one constant is that they talk in depth with people outside their fields. My favorite artists have scientist friends and vice versa.

Staying broadly connected is the best advice I can give you. It will expose you to enough interesting ideas that you’ll be able to find the most productive paths for yourself. But I could go on:

Look for real problems. “Let’s make a map of the furthest point from a McDonalds in each state” may be worthwhile as an exercise, but it’s not a real problem. Accurately measuring how earthquakes propagate is a real problem. Making tools to support representation of indigenous land rights is a real problem. Finding long-term correlates of conflict is a real problem.

That doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time on scientific and humanitarian topics, especially as a student! But remember that your work is valuable. Good people spent long days to teach you. Your attention and labor matters. Give it in places where you’ll regret that you couldn’t give more, not where you’ll regret that you gave any.

If you need to take a course or a job that you don’t believe in, fine! Pay the bills. Do the readings. Try to learn whatever you can even while you’re frustrated. There’s no shame in bussing tables or in typing parcel boundaries for the county GIS department. But don’t bring misery on yourself. Don’t say “Well, Yoyodyne makes kitten-seeking missile guidance computers and their contract doesn’t allow side projects, but I need something solid on my résumé, so I’ll just spend four years there while I get on my feet.” It’ll lead to selling out, burning out, and generally being no use to yourself or anyone else. Survive, but think big. The GIS industry is a moving target: don’t aim for a good job, aim to invent it.

Learn as much statistics as you reasonably can. Trust me. Half the time I work out a big technical problem it involves learning some stats, and then suddenly I see all these other places where that bit of knowledge applies. In fact, I’m making a note: I should learn more stats.

Read Edward Tufte’s books front to back several times, even the parts that don’t seem to have anything to do with maps.

Try to peek outside popular Western spatial ideas. For example, you’ve probably heard that there are cultures where direction is usually given in absolute terms, so instead of saying that the bathroom door is “to the left”, it might be “downhill” or “east”. Or maybe you’ve heard that Japanese addresses are block-oriented instead of street-oriented. So look it up! Read the studies! (Here’s one I enjoyed.) Even if everything you produce is strictly in conventional idioms, you want more mental tools.

For inspiration about image processing techniques in GIS, look at other fields: astronomical imaging, computational photography, knitting, archival photo restoration. I’ve been tinkering with some imagery taken by a satellite sensor that works such that the bands are recorded at slightly different times, and having read about recovering early color images years ago turned out to be super valuable: I already know something about this problem that other people don’t.

Whenever you can, let the data lead. If you stumble on something interesting, maybe just a big cache of open imagery on some government FTP site, see what you can discover. Work with it at least until you find its problems. Imagine something that might be possible with this dataset, assume it is possible, and do it. Being able to think about a piece of information from first principles – what’s its inherent dimensionality? what are its hard limits? what can it be connected to? – puts you streets ahead of people who are only trained to operate a given software suite, however deftly.

Stick with open-source tools as much as you can. One reason is that you can look inside them and figure out how they work, though sometimes it’s hard. You also get to share your work with a much larger community. They will make your work will more reproducible. And when you understand them well, you can contribute to them for others’ benefit.

Companies that you would want to work for don’t hire based on how many checkboxes your CV meets. Teachers sometimes give that impression, but it’s just because it’s what they can help you with. Better to ask someone with a job that you’d like to have in ten years to look at your résumé and make three concrete suggestions. People who make hiring decisions are trying to solve problems, and you’re trying to convince them that you can help solve those problems. Sometimes that depends on your mastery of certain narrow skills, which you already know to put in your application. But it always depends on qualities like initiative, carefulness, ability to learn, curiosity, and delight in geo itself. In other words, be authentic.

When people say “do what you love” they don’t mean “goof off and trust the world to provide”; they mean “you’ll be working below your abilities whenever you don’t have intrinsic motivation, so find it”.

Teach. Any time anyone is paying attention to you, you’re teaching anyway, so it’s good to be deliberate about it. This might be as simple as a notebook blog: “Today I tried to do X with method Y, but got result Z. Will report when I know why.” Teaching forces you to think carefully in certain ways. Teaching also helps you keep ethics in mind. Mapping is a special kind of power that most people cannot tell is being abused even when it is. Having to break it down for someone is one way to remember the consequences of things. People doing GIS are subject to the same forces and biases as everyone else in their societies. That means sexism, unfair economics – and so on and so on. Take these things seriously. Be better than neutral. Listen before you speak.

I think that’s enough general pontificating. Let me link to some stuff that might interest you:

  • I use EarthExplorer pretty much every day including weekends – drop a pin and look at all the free data sources (see also Libra, Sentinel-1 Scihub, etc., and many commercial imagery providers release samples)

  • EOSDIS Worldview is a nice reminder that we live on a planet; see also MODIS Today and the Suomi–NPP VIIRS equivalent

  • Coverage of HOT OSM efforts in the Philippines after Haiyan/Yolanda; getting involved in HOT will teach you a lot quickly

  • King County (Seattle) is doing some quietly groundbreaking work on seeing geographical features as treatments in a standard epidemiology study, which gives them access to a set of statistical tools and approaches that are so far mostly used halfheartedly or unrigorously in mainstream GIS

  • James C. Scott works on interactions of geography and power: I recommend reading his books while in school, as an antidote to easy assumptions about geo’s inherent goodness, and from him you will find other thinkers

  • Tele-present water is a rare example of geo art that moves me in a deeper way than “huh, cool!”

  • And Ingrid Burrington (@lifewinning on Twitter) is an artist whose geo work has that ineffable quality of inspiration and challenges and deepens my perceptions

  • James Bridle is another; one branch of his work that I particularly enjoyed was on submarine cables

  • Peter Richardson’s “The Lay of the Land” is the only short prose I know that gets at the sense of place like it does

This is just a sample of things that are a little off the mainstream of GIS but have given me some kind of sustenance.

Probably a lot of what I’ve said here is not useful to you. I’ve been super lucky in many ways, and I could easily give advice that’s completely ineffective or insulting for someone in other circumstances. And of course any time someone gives advice for coping with life, it’s secretly mixed with stories about how they cope with themselves, so you have to do some untangling. Whatever I’ve said here that doesn’t make sense for you, throw it away.

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