Orbitist: Storytelling on the Western Front

It’s always refreshing discovering new startups and firms mixing geospatial concepts with other technology and media platforms.  Not necessarily true geospatial firms which we’ve come to label as such, but clearly operating on the fringe and providing selected products and services mainstream geospatial consultants market and provide.  One such relatively new firm is Orbitist based out of Fredonia, New York.

Orbitist is led by Nick Gunner who has been filming and directing video productions since 2007 when he began pursuing his Bachelor of Science Degree in TV/Digital Film, Audio/Radio production, and Earth Science at the State University of New York at Fredonia. During that time, Nick started building content management systems and digital mapping technology which he continued while serving four years as the university’s New Media Manager.   On the side, he continued to pursue freelance work as a public radio producer, freelance documentary filmmaker, and web developer. In the Summer of 2015, Nick launched Orbitist LLC as part of the Fredonia Technology Incubator with the idea of using digital storytelling and technology to make important information as accessible as possible.

Initial Work

The Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) of Natural History was Orbitist’s first client.   In the Summer of 2015 they commissioned a short documentary on the Chadakoin River in Jamestown, as well as map three tours about various natural history topics.  Representative examples of RTPI products can be viewed on YouTube and the bottom three links on this Orbitist web page.  During this same time period – and ongoing today – Orbitist also performed work for the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau.

Other recent products and services include:

A Story Map documenting the Winter 1929 Tewksbury boat and bridge crash on the Buffalo River resulting in the flooding of a 18 neighborhood blocks in South Buffalo.

This Story Map uses a variety of multimedia which pinpoints cultural and historical features from different Spanish-speaking countries, including architectural feats, traditional dances, and tipping customs, among others. Each map utilizes Spanish phrases with English translations to bridge the gap between languages.

Software Suite

Relying on the experience he gained building systems for the last 10 years, software products used at Orbitist reflects Nick’s commitment to combining content management with interactive mapping – much of which is accomplished by integrating and combining leading Open Source components.   Currently the Orbitist mapping platform is a simple content management system which associates posts (internally called “points”) with latitude/longitude values.  The Orbitist team often uses Mapbox GL as a primary front-end mapping library but behind that everything in their system is API-driven, meaning story maps are created top of products such as Leaflet and Google Maps.  They also use Carto as a stand-alone product for building real-time analytics maps.  All combined, the Orbitist “system” also manages images and a variety of data (icon type, time of day, external links, etc.) and provides access to YouTube, Vimeo, and even Facebook for video hosting. GitHub is leveraged to host static web projects.

Orbitist helped Investigative Post map and present lead data from Buffalo city water. The reporting has since contributed to changing policy in the city.

In summarizing their “go-to” software suite, Nick notes:

“I’ve found that for telling stories with interactive data, Carto is amazing. For designing outstanding base maps and for the best mapping interface in my opinion, Mapbox all the way. And for telling stories on top of maps, Orbitist’s original mapping platform is un-rivaled!”

Current Work

Orbitist is currently working with the Chautauqua County Land Bank using all three of their core services (video production, data visualization, and web development) showcasing the important work they do. Orbitist staff is visualizing local datasets for Land Bank to help assess neighborhoods and properties to invest. These include serial code violations, tax foreclosures, property assessments, and County GIS data sets. This work rolling out a map-based crowdsourcing platform which will allow residents to survey their neighborhoods for abandoned and dilapidated properties as well as developing a model to identify slumlord properties in the community.

Orbitist continues to focus on conservation and environmental outreach with the intend of building tools and story mapping to bridge the gap between water, agriculture, ecology, urban green spaces, and the general public.  Making important information and map-based data more accessible.  In addition to these many projects itemized above, Orbitist is starting a series of projects with the Chautauqua Institution.   Their work in this space is reflected as finalists n the Erie Hack competition and will be competing in May for seed money to apply our products to water-related issues around Lake Erie.  A very recent online article via Fredonia.edu News tell more.    Orbitist is also using drone technology for video production and for capturing imagery for making high definition mapping tiles.  Having recently obtained a Part 107 Drone License the firm is intending to use drones for spatial data collection, too.

Summary

Find out more about Orbitist’s products and services by visiting their website.  One can even set up an account to start making and sharing web maps and stories with the online tools Orbitist provides as part of their online  Learn section.   “We are first and foremost storytellers interested in helping people understand and explore the world” comments Gunner, “and right now that understanding comes in the form of multimedia mapping, data visualization, and video production. But who knows what that will mean down the road. We’re going to use whatever tools best allow us to accomplish our mission and business needs.”

With all the talk about statewide incubators aligned with the SUNY campuses,  it is nice to see a start-up with geospatial ties emerging the program.  Orbitist is a relatively young company and only now beginning to define its space across the New York State technology landscape.     We wish them well.

Note:  Orbitist will be presenting at the 2017 Westchester GIS User Group Meeting, May 18th at Purchase College.

10 Questions: Steve Romalewski

Steven Romalewski is currently director of the Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center / CUNY.  During his 32-year career he has helped hundreds of nonprofit groups across the country leverage the power of GIS; helped develop more than two-dozen online mapping services analyzing environmental issues, social services, transit routing, demographic trends, voting behavior, and legislative representation.  He has also coordinated the work of community groups and others across New York to advocate for sensible environmental policies at the local, state, and federal levels.  For the past 10 years, he has taught students at Pratt Institute how to use GIS in their urban planning careers, and helped educate many others through presentations about the value of GIS.  He lives in Manhattan.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How did you end up in your current position at Center for Urban Research?  

Romalewski:  Before joining CUNY I ran the Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP) at NYPIRG for about eight years, providing mapping services to nonprofit organizations across the country.  (Before that I was an environmental researcher and advocate at NYPIRG.)  By 2004 or so, CMAP’s work had started to outgrow our advocacy-oriented parent organization. Internally we discussed options of spinning off CMAP as a social business venture, merging it with another organization, or launching it as its own nonprofit.

At the same time we were going through a strategic planning effort for the OASIS project, and one of the key findings was that OASIS would benefit from an institutional setting such as academia where the OASIS website would be able to leverage more stable technology resources and organizational support.

One of the academic programs we talked with was the Center for Urban Research (CUR) at the CUNY Graduate Center.  I had worked on projects over the years with CUR’s director John Mollenkopf, and he was a big fan of our work. It seemed like a great fit, and in January 2006  I moved to CUNY.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How do CUR projects come to be or developed?

Romalewski:  We’re fortunate to have a good amount of leeway in deciding on projects.  Generally CUR engages in applied research projects in the areas of neighborhood change, immigration, and urban development broadly speaking. Within those areas, we look for mapping projects where we can have an impact, where we can leverage CUR’s mapping skills and expertise in analyzing urban trends, and that come with funding support so we can cover staff time and related expenses.

We’re especially interested in working with our colleagues throughout CUNY, as well as within city government (since CUNY has a close relationship with New York City agencies), but we also take on projects with a wide array of partners.

If the project involves an online mapping component we try to structure it so we can incorporate the latest and greatest interactive web and mapping techniques and technologies. Continue reading

SAVI Builds a Metro NYC Presence

The last couple years I’ve been watching the growth of GeoNYC Meetup group and continue to be amazed at the far-reaching representation of individuals and companies now involved in the broad field we call “geospatial”.  One person shops, start-ups, open source/open data techies, apartment and loft based companies, strong business and private sector representation, community based mappers, and everything in-between.  A much different composition and representation than that of the other existing statewide geospatial/GIS communities and organizations that I and other colleagues of my GIS generation came through.   To date I have published three previous blog posts focusing on other contacts made through GeoNYC:  Mapzen, Mapillary and NiJel.

Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative (SAVI)

Also establishing a niche in the expanding geospatial space are community facing programs associated with and supported in academia environments.  One such program, which I was also introduced to through GeoNYC, is the  Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative (SAVI).  It was launched in 2013 and is at Pratt Institute.  SAVI is a GIS-based research lab and service center that focuses on mapping, data analysis, and visual storytelling, providing students, faculty, and community groups with the resources they need to communicate information in compelling ways. The first and only New York City college-based GIS lab open to community organizations and civic groups, SAVI offers computer access, technical assistance, professional training, workshops, and research that empower local organizations to create their own visions to improve the quality of life for their clients and constituents. At Pratt, SAVI supports students and faculty whose work reaches beyond the Institute’s campus to engage and benefit New York City.

Leading the SAVI program is Jessie Braden, who was appointed Director in the Fall of 2013.  Prior to SAVI, Braden spent three years at the Pratt Center for Community Development, a non-profit affiliated with Pratt Institute that provides technical services to community organizations.  She has also been an adjunct professor of GIS in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Program since 2010.  Braden initially started SAVI with Pratt Programs for Sustainable Planning and Development (PSPD) Professor Juan Camilo Osorio as a volunteer side project in 2011 with the guidance of then Department Chair John Shapiro.  In addition to PSPD, Pratt Center and the Graduate Communications Design Department offered their official support, allowing the lab to come to fruition and solidifying SAVI’s focus on communities AND design.  Pratt Center also secured a $670,000 grant from NYC City Council to renovate a physical space on Pratt’s campus so SAVI can serve community organizations and students.  During the time the program was being institutionalized at Pratt, Osorio took a full-time position as Director of Research at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. Though not involved in day to day operations, Osorio remains a trusted advisor to SAVI.

SAVI consolidates the Institute’s GIS resources with an eye to social benefit. This means putting data analysis in the hands of community activists, students, and faculty. It also means making the products of GIS expertise visually legible and compelling so that the stories they tell will have as much impact as possible.

“At the end of the day, visual representation is as important as the quality of data analysis,” Braden observes. “Our vision for SAVI is to produce outstanding multidisciplinary projects  with the highest-caliber visual display— making the invisible visible, both inside and outside Pratt’s gates.”  Its Jessie’s belief, which I share,  that a well designed map should be able to stand on its own.  Such a product enables the reader to conduct the “spatial analysis” based on the distribution and rendering of the map data itself – with only minimal accompanying narrative to explain or describe the map.

Braden points to specific mapping projects which exemplify the SAVI cause:
Continue reading

Geospatial Business Spotlight: Mapillary

Company Name:                 Mapillary

Website:                              http://www.mapillary.com/

Established:                       2013

THE COMPANY

Mapillary is a new and different approach to Street View. Using computer vision, Mapillary stitches together photos taken with any device to create street-level imagery for extracting geospatial data. By empowering anyone anywhere to easily create street-level imagery, Mapillary aims to create a photo representation of the world. To date, Mapillary’s community has contributed 63 million photos spanning over 900,000 miles across all seven continents.

Mapillary was founded in 2013 by Jan Erik Solem, Johan Gyllenspetz, Yubin Kuang, and Peter Neubauer, who share a vision for putting mapmaking into the hands of people everywhere. Solem, who serves as CEO, previously founded Polar Rose, a facial recognition software that was bought by Apple in 2010.  The company is headquartered in Malmö, Sweden, and has fifteen full-time employees located around the world.   Mapillary’s New York office is based In Brooklyn, NY.

PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

Mapillary allows community members to create and explore a crowd-sourced, street-level view of the world through its app, which is available for web, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Users can upload photos from their smartphones or other digital cameras and Mapillary then combines the images together geotagging each using GPS metadata. The resulting 3D reconstruction is created using computer vision and the company’s own open source “Structure from Motion” algorithm. Mapping isn’t limited to streets—the community has captured hiking trails, favorite bike routes, and even a stretch of Antarctica. Mapillary integrates with any mapping platform through simple APIs.

Street-level photos can be captured using Mapillary's iPhone app

Street-level photos can be captured using Mapillary’s iPhone app

In addition to creating photo-maps, Mapillary also utilizes computer vision techniques to extract useful data from uploaded images. For instance, the software can recognize symbols on street signs in photos taken in the U.S. or Europe. This capability grew out of the app’s need to blur faces and license plates for privacy purposes, and is now used by groups like city governments for urban planning, land surveys and asset inventory. Using Mapillary with Esri’s ArcGIS platform has helped cities streamline infrastructure updates, from speed limit changes to road surface quality checks.

Mapillary uses computer vision to automatically detect traffic signs and extract geospatial data

Mapillary uses computer vision to automatically detect traffic signs and extract geospatial data

Humanitarian organizations also use Mapillary to further their initiatives. In Haiti, the American Red Cross and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap partnered with Mapillary to help record previously unmapped areas to aid disaster response efforts. Mapillary has also been used by the World Bank and other groups in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, to record infrastructure in flood-prone areas of the city to help plan improvements. The app is ideally suited for these sorts of tasks because it doesn’t require any special equipment beyond a basic smartphone.

Street level imagery is reconstructed by creating point clouds from photos.

Street level imagery is reconstructed by creating point clouds from photos.

Mapillary is free to use for individuals and for non-profit or educational purposes. For commercial solutions, ranging from embedding a photo-map into a webpage to extracting specific data from images, Mapillary has several pricing plans available.

Westchester County GIS is using the Mapillary app to inventory hiking trails in County parks

Westchester County GIS is using the Mapillary app to inventory  hiking trails in Westchester County parks

To find out more about Mapillary, visit their website.

CONTACT: 

hello@mapillary.com
Bredgatan 4, 211 30 Malmo, Sweden
www.mapillary.com

2016 NYS Spring GIS Conference Specials

With my March Madness bracket already busted just four days into tournament play and watching anymore games for the most part pointless (Syracuse in the Sweet 16, really?),  combined with winter returning and getting out on the golf course also not an option, it seemed like a good time to sit down and compile my annual plug of regional one-day GIS conferences and meetings around the Empire State over the next 4-6 weeks.

Most of the Spring 2016 shows are held in locations accessible via a maximum 2-4 hour drive from all parts of the state, offer a wide range of geospatial topics and presentations, provide excellent networking opportunities among colleagues and industry representatives, and are generally light on the wallet.    And for the GISP folks, most of the shows also provide certification credits.

Sounds pretty good, right? So consider the following options:

GIS-SIG 25rd Annual Conference, April 12th, Burgundy Basin, Pittsford, NY.  Its unfortunate I cannot make GIS-SIG this year as it is one of my most favorite statewide one-day shows.  GIS/SIG provides the premier geospatial professional forum in the Rochester/Genesee Finger Lakes/Western New York region for GIS practitioners focusing on trends and policies relating to new geospatial technologies and current projects.  With a loyal membership and Board of Directors, the size and content of the GIS/SIG conference is broad enough to often substitute as an annual state conference for many GIS practitioners in the western half of the state. This year’s conference again includes vendor displays and an agenda covering topics such as drones, open source, and mobile apps among others as well as a keynote address by Steve Coast, Founder of OpenStreetMap.   Corporate sponsorship keeps the price tag of an individual registration at under a $100 for the day which also includes lunch. Online registration is available and while you are at the GIS/SIG website you can also see the many resources and links GIS/SIG provides to its user community.  This is a great show and if you have the opportunity to attend, I highly recommend it.

Long Island GIS (LIGIS)  2016 Spring User Conference, April 15th, SUNY Farmingdale, Farmingdale, NY.  LIGIS meetings and conferences have grown in structure and content recently and this spring’s April 15th meeting is anticipated to illustrate these continued improvements.  And the big plus for the Long Island GIS community is that the show is free.   While the agenda is close to being finalized, already confirmed is a U.S. Census Bureau “Map Tab Lab” workshop, plans for a user-submitted map session, and anticipated presentations from government, nonprofits, and industry.    Those interested in attending can monitor conference specifics at the LIGIS homepage.  Located in central Long Island on the SUNY Farmingdale campus, this is a not-to-miss conference for the  extended GIS/geospatial community on “the Island” with limited travel budgets.  Make plans to attend.

Northeast Arc User Group (NEARC) Meeting, May 9th, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. Though not in New York State, the 2016 Spring NEARC meeting is conveniently located in Amherst, MA which is easily accessible to the Albany Capital District and GIS professionals in eastern New York State. Once considered the smaller venue of the NEARC suite of meetings, Spring NEARC grew too large at its original site and moved to the conference center at the University of Massachusetts which actually hosted the annual NEARC conference in the early 1990s.   Unlike the GIS/SIG conference which is software vendor independent, this show is very much ESRI centric though is packed with high quality user presentations. Even though only one day, the show  has grown to be so popular that it now competes with the larger multi-day GIS shows and conferences across New England.   Price tag for attending:  $65 which includes lunch.  If you can afford an overnight, activities the evening before downtown Amherst and a hotel room at the UMass conference center make it even more worth your while. (As of the day of this blog post, the May 9th agenda was still in development.)    If your organization is an ESRI shop – this is a Spring show not to miss.

Westchester GIS User Group Meeting, May 12th, Purchase College, Purchase New York. As one of the largest geospatial meetings in New York State, the Westchester GIS User Group Meeting is a free one-day conference held at Purchase College. Made possible by financial support from exhibiting vendors and conference facilities provided by the college, the 2016 agenda tentatively includes user presentations from a geospatial start-up company, Westchester County municipalities, nonprofits, and industry representatives. There is also a  student project contest and post conference training in building Story Maps led by Westchester County GIS staff and a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) workshop with instructor Austin Fisher.   The Purchase College location provides easy one-day access across the metropolitan NYC area, as well as the broader lower Hudson River Valley and southeastern Connecticut. Agenda and other meeting specifics – including registration – is available from the Westchester County GIS website.

So, if travel expenses are once again limited and/or at a premium, no problemo.  The entire Empire State GIS community is fortunate enough to be close enough to a range of regional geospatial meetings and conferences which are accessible from most areas of the state and provide many of the same benefits of larger shows.

Safe travels!

NiJeL Expands its New York State Presence

Established by Nancy S. Jones, JD Godchaux, and Lela Prashad in 2007, NiJeL is a company founded on the goal of helping organizations and communities building interactive dashboards, infographics and maps, building strong advocacy tools, and to connect with their communities and sponsors.  Ms. Prashad (CEO) currently leads NiJeL, while Mr. Godchaux (CTO) serves as the primary interactive developer, and Ms. Jones provides management oversight and strategic direction.  NiJeL began after the three had volunteered as American Friends for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Phoenix, Arizona while attending Arizona State University as graduate students.

After the successful launch of one of their early online mapping applications in support of Duet – a metro-Phoenix nonprofit dedicated to supporting and improving the quality of life for senior citizens – NiJeL relocated main staff in 2011 to Brooklyn, and since then have been engaged in a number of Empire State oriented geospatial projects.

NiJeL uses standard statistical, mapping, and database software, and develop custom open applications for websites, mobile devices, and desktop computing.  “What makes us different from other groups like us in this space is our custom process to assess current data, metrics, and technology workflows with regards to the organization’s culture and specific goals” notes JD Godchaux .   NiJeL works with  a wide variety of organizations and their focus on using open-source components allows the firm to be flexible in how projects are approached and ultimately designed.  Their commitment to open-source tools allows to provide training for technical staff to manage and make changes to the technology solution they deliver to the client.  Illustrative projects include: Continue reading