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.


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.

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!

Spring 2014 GIS Conference Deals

Spring is one of my favorite times of the year for a bunch of reasons.   March Madness, Major League Baseball season begins (sorry Yanks & Mets fans, having been raised outside of Cleveland, I’m a hapless lifelong Indians fan – which is a curse) and the public golf courses in Westchester County open late March!  But this Spring is particularly sweet as we finally begin to sense and feel an end to the brutal and seemingly endless winter we’ve all suffered through over the past several months.

Over on the geospatial front, Spring also offers some of my favorite one-day GIS conferences held in locations which are easily accessible to the Empire State  geospatial community.     These one-day conferences are user-friendly, light on registration fees, provide excellent networking opportunities among colleagues and industry representatives,  provide good content, and minimize overall travel expenses – which is significant due to the substantial travel restrictions many GIS professionals are currently dealing with across the state.

Three Spring 2014 regional GIS conferences and meetings worth considering include:

GIS-SIG 23rd Annual Conference, April 15th, Rochester, NY.   GIS-SIG is the long standing western New York geospatial educational user group whose primary mission is to “foster the understanding of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology.”   GIS/SIG provides a professional forum in the Rochester – Genesee Finger Lakes region for GIS education, data sharing, communication and networking with other local, state and national users, dissemination of information about trends and policies related to GIS, and technology advancement.  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.  The conference boasts a wide range of vendors and presentations involving government, industry and business, nonprofits, and contributions from the many academic institutions in the Rochester-Buffalo corridor.  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.

Northeast Arc User Group (NEARC) Meeting, May 13th, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.  Though not in New York State, the 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 annual conferences, Spring NEARC grew too large at its original site at Smith College in Northampton, MA and moved to a larger venue at the University of Massachusetts.  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, well attended by ESRI business partners, and has grown to be so popular that the show competes with the larger annual three-day NEARC Conference held in the fall and other similar New England GIS shows.   This is a great one-day conference, well attended, great user content, easy access, lots of opportunities to meet industry representatives and ESRI regional staff,  professional networking,  and includes lunch – all for $45.  If your organization is an ESRI shop – this is a Spring show not to miss.

Westchester GIS User Group Meeting, May 15th, Purchase College, Purchase New York.  As one of the largest geospatial meetings in southeastern 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 through the college, the 2014 event includes a wide range of user presentations,  a specific PDH (Professional Development Hour) user track for engineers,  afternoon workshops, coffee breaks for networking,  and both a student poster contest and on-campus geogaching and orienteering contest.  The Purchase College location provides easy one-day access across the metropolitan NYC area, including the lower Hudson River Valley and also southeastern Connecticut. While a preliminary agenda has already been posted, it will be updated on a regular basis leading up to the day of the meeting.

So, if overnight travel and expenses are simply not available, fret not – there are regional geospatial meetings and conferences which are accessible from most areas of the state – which provide many of the same benefits of larger shows – and at the same time are easy on the wallet.  It’s worth considering these and other smaller shows to support your professional development efforts and outreach.  At the end of the day, it will be worth your while and you’ll be supporting both your colleagues and the industry representatives which support our Empire State GIS programs.

GIS on Campus

Home to one of the three original university programs associated with creation of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) in 1988  – University of Buffalo, University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of  Maine –  New York State universities and colleges have long contributed to building the statewide GIS knowledge base and training students for professional careers in both government and industry.

While the statewide geospatial academic landscape has changed dramatically since creation of NCGIA, GIS concepts continue to be offered and integrated into many research and academic programs across the state including both the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems.  And beyond the traditional geography programs, GIS concepts can also be found as part of many state and private universities in a growing number of environmental science, civil engineering, health, and computer science program curriculums.

A cursory review of GIS academic and research efforts across the Empire State includes:

Academic Programs:  Four-year programs in geography are available at eight SUNY schools with a bachelor degree in GIS being offered only at SUNY Cortland.  An Associate Degree is available at Cayuga Community College and Erie Community College offering a GIS Specialist Certificate Program.  Graduate programs in the SUNY system are available at SUNY Buffalo, Albany, and Binghamton with Buffalo offering a PhD program.  Masters programs are also available in the CUNY system at both Hunter College and Lehman College.

Educational offerings at other statewide schools include masters and doctoral degrees at Syracuse University School of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and a growing number of geospatial/geoscience offerings at several private liberal arts schools including, but not limited to Hamilton College, St. Lawrence College (Certificate Program),  Hobart and William Smith College, and Sienna College. Pace University (Pleasantville, NY) professor Dr. Peggy Minus has received recognition as one of the first GIS academics to offer a massive open online course (MOOC).

Research and Outreach:  Geospatial research work at SUNY institutions include Dr. Tao Tang at Buffalo State working with 3D visualization and  public health issues, Dr. Chris Renschler, SUNY Buffalo leading the Landscape-based Environmental System & Analysis Modeling (LESAM) lab,  Dr. James Mower at SUNY Albany, Dr. Jim Kernan at SUNY Geneseo,  Dr. Wendy Miller at SUNY Cortland using GIS in a Central New York economic analysis, Dr. Ann Deakin at SUNY Fredonia working with GIS students in supporting a local not-for-profit focused fighting poverty and infrastructure management at Chautauqua Institution, and  Dr. Ryan Taylor at Purchase College focusing on GIS applications in Water Resources Assessment and Wetlands Assessment in southeastern New York State.   Any summary on the contributions of SUNY system geographic programs towards development of the statewide GIS effort would be remiss without making reference to the long time contributions of Eileen Allen, GIS Support Specialist in the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Notable geospatial research programs associated with Hunter and Lehman Colleges include The Institute for Sustainable Cities and the Center for Advanced Research of Spatial Information (CARSI). Current efforts at Hunter College focus on transportation research, spatial statistics, geospatial semantics, and volunteered geographic information (VGI) while selected Lehman College research includes Climate Change and Public Health in Coastal Urban Areas, urban agriculture, and Risk Terrain Modeling of the Bronx – and effort to measure quality of life conditions and potential mental and physical health stressors in the local environment.

Close by at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN),  researchers are working on a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to develop a Hudson River Flood Hazard Decision Support System.  The project will ultimately create an easy to use, free, online mapping tool to let users assess the impacts of flood inundation posed by sea level rise, storm surge, and rain events on communities bordering the lower Hudson River.

Research and academic work from long standing research institutions such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) continue to blur the boundaries between geospatial reality and fantasy with advancements in computer graphics and visualization.  Note Brian Tomaszewski’s work with ArcGIS as a gaming environment for measuring disaster response spatial thinking. Here’s the link to the Summer 2013 ArcUser article on his research.    Geospatial concepts can easily be found elsewhere at these institutions in engineering and computer science programs.

Academic Degrees and Research in the Future 

There is no question the industry is witnessing major changes in how organizations build and maintain GIS capacity:  More and easier access to online content, free and easy to use viewers, cloud solutions (hardware, software, data), shorter development schedules in bringing applications into production, and basic GIS functions being integrated and offered as part of most off-the-shelf software programs.  While there will always be a selected need for cartographers, map makers,  and desktop users, is the larger geospatial job market becoming more software developer oriented?  Of the recent debate on the regional GIS listservs and blogs discussing which software skill sets, academic degrees, or professional certifications (i.e., GISP, ESRI, etc.), which are thought to be important in the GIS career path, refer to a 2012 post on the issue by Justin Holman entitled “Spatial is Indeed Special….. but GIS Software Skills will Soon be Obsolete”.  And whether or not it is more a factor of a weaken U.S. economy, government downsizing, or in fact,  changing skill sets that are defining the new GIS job market (or an individual career path)  – GIS student graduation / employment metrics are numbers the NYS GIS  and academic community need to pay close attention to.  While I was fortunate enough to recently post – though yet to fill – an entry-level GIS position here at Westchester County GIS,  it’s been one of the few full-time GIS positions listed in New York State during 2013 as advertised on the NYS GIS Association job posting page.

And what about academic GIS research?  There is plenty of it around on our college campuses,  much of which is being funded from government grants or self-funded through individual programs.  Greater buy-in and financial support from industry and business – particularly  businesses with the big statewide “geospatial” presence – such as ESRI, AutoDesk, Google, Pictometry, IMPACT, Transfinder, IBM, ConEd, Verizon, Pitney-Bowes, and several New York health care conglomerates – can be helpful to focus on applied research efforts developing products and applications for municipalities, schools, community organizations, not-for-profits, small businesses, public utilities, and tribal governments to support day-to-day business functions – in New York State.   In keeping with similar NYS government consolidation efforts, research to validate GIS shared services models would be of significant statewide benefit.  And perhaps the most important and timely research effort may be to investigate and determine what factors really are reshaping the industry in context of job creation and employment opportunities for New York State college graduates.  One way or another, such findings can be used to identify what, if any, changes need to be made in academic curriculums and degree programs statewide.

Editor Note:  Many thanks to Dr. Ann Deakin @ SUNY Fredonia for contributions on SUNY system summaries and related article content