Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Tableau’s Sarah Battersby finds her approach in serving to folks use maps and spatial information

Sarah Battersby is a onetime geography professor who joined Tableau’s research team in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Battersby)

Sarah Battersby isn’t a “map person” — she doesn’t collect them in any real way or decorate her house with cool maps. But the cartographer, or “psychogeographer,” spends her time thinking about how people think about maps.

A research scientist at Tableau in Seattle, Battersby is our latest Geek of the Week. She fell into geography as a University of Washington undergrad, discovered that she loved geographic information systems (GIS), did a stint at UC Santa Barbara for her PhD in cognitive science and then took a job as a geography professor — “I was tenured and everything!” she said.

She joined Tableau’s research team to work on the bigger problems and challenges people face trying to work with maps every day.

“Inherently I like to find the bad in maps, then figure out where it went wrong, how we can make it right, and, most importantly, how to help people not make the same mistake with their spatial data, analysis, or map,” she said.

Along the way she’s written a bunch of academic papers, a book on map projections, served on the Board of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS), and she’s a past president of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. Currently she’s a member of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee.

In a world where we’re all staring at app-based maps on our phones trying to get from point A to point B, Battersby said she spends a lot of time looking at the parts of the map that aren’t on her route.

“That’s a huge part of developing a good cognitive map of a region — and huge for finding the fun little things ‘off the path,’” she said. “There are studies showing that reliance on maps that just show us the path between locations is hurting the broader acquisition of spatial knowledge (one cool paper on this here), so I’m trying to make good use of the technology while still trying to learn about the bigger picture of the world around me.”

Battersby is also a big walker, who normally walks more miles in a year than she drives. She’d love navigational tools to improve with walking directions that could pay more attention to the existence of sidewalks, steep hills, prettiness of the landscape, curb cuts and other accessibility characteristics. She also enjoys baking and she tackles The New York Times crossword puzzle every day.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Sarah Battersby:

What do you do, and why do you do it? My passion is helping people do the right thing with spatial data, and feeling confident that the result is going to be useful to answer their questions. Why? Because spatial data is often weird, the analytic methods can be confusing, and it’s super easy to unintentionally make a misleading map. Why? You’re dealing with geography that has been scaled down and simplified (you can’t make a 1:1 map of the world!), analysis methods that seem easy (because we think about space all the time and can easily SEE different patterns) but that can be difficult to find the right way to tell the computer to calculate it, it isn’t always easy to find the right data to use, and, of course, every map we make uses projected coordinates so we have to deal with distortion. Put all of this together with the everyday challenges of good visualization practice and it turns out to be harder than it seems like it should be at times.

I want to help the world (not just the geography students, GIS masters, etc.) feel like they can make sense of their mapped data. I want to help the world think smarter about spatial data and to be able to easily ask spatial questions and get the right answer (even if they don’t know that the question really involves some spatial analysis).

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? All sorts of things …

  • Maps are cool, but people do the wrong thing with them all the time.
  • All maps are wrong, but some are wrong-er (or right-er) than others.
  • Most people don’t make bad maps on purpose. (OK, I do it all the time … but it’s for educational or research, I swear!) It’s really easy to make a map that is misleading or flat out wrong.
  • Most online maps use the Web Mercator projection — there are a lot of calculations that you need to be super wary of! Be cautious when trying to compare locations on heat maps!
  • Heat maps are not hot spot analysis and you should not expect them to show you “significance” of clusters.

Where do you find your inspiration? Bad maps. I love finding examples of bad maps or analysis that is wrong. It’s all about finding the teaching moments — because a good map just works and you don’t think about why it does. We can deconstruct a bad map and use it to understand how to make maps work better.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My computer … because I spend all day with it. Though, I really like to turn it off and go outside whenever I can. Or my Kindle, because it makes it so much easier to travel with a lot of books. When I’m on a serious book binge and delayed in a random airport, I often tether the Kindle to my phone to download a new batch of library books (it’s always easier to tether to my phone than to try to get the Kindle onto airport WiFi).

(Photo courtesy of Sarah Battersby)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I’ve always had a bat theme to my desk … right now I have Lego Batman minifigs all across my computer monitor. A good set of toys reminds me to find the joy and humor in every day. Mostly my desk is semi-tidy, with a scattering of books, academic journals, printed papers, and sticky notes with my to-do list. I try to tidy up every Friday so I start fresh on Monday.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Start (and/or end) every day with a list. Systematically work through it — but try to save at least one of the really fun items for later in the day to give you motivation. If I’m actively working on a coding project, I like to save a fun little something to figure out or debug. It can be relaxing sometimes.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows. I tried a Mac for a while. All the cool cartography kids use Macs. But, clearly, I’m not cool (though I already knew that!). Maybe I’m doin’ it wrong, but they don’t make sense to me.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Who?

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter. How great would it be to avoid security lines at the airport and transport to wherever? I also assume a transporter is the most environmentally friendly way to travel, right?

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Do something related to spatial literacy and helping make spatial data and analytic tools / methods available to everyone.

I once waited in line for … Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. I’m always willing to wait in line for good barbecue. (side note: I’m even a certified barbecue judge and used to judge for the South Carolina Barbeque Association).

Your role models: I have a lot of people I’d put in this category, so I’ll just give a why instead of a who. My role models are the people who have taken time out of their busy (and often super successful, awesome) lives to mentor me in my professional and personal journey — and who show me great ways to keep “fun” as an important part of the workday. Giving back to the next generation is so important and I hope I’m getting better at it and learning from my role models.

Greatest game in history: Baseball. Or bowling.

Best gadget ever: Does my wood-pellet-fired pizza oven count as a gadget? It’s so awesome.

First computer: Apple IIc.

Current phone: Google Pixel 3a.

Favorite app: New York Times crossword app. I probably open that more than any other app. Current streak is getting close to 550 consecutive daily puzzles solved (streak would have been longer, but I missed a few days when my mom had a heart attack last year … it was easy to prioritize mom over crosswords and I don’t regret breaking my previous streak. Every day now when I finish the puzzle and look at my new solved puzzle streak total I think about how grateful I am that my mom is still around … that’s probably weird, sad and great at the same time). Or, One Bus Away. It’s always good to know when the bus is going to come fetch me (and how much time I have to get my act together before running towards the bus stop).

Favorite cause: I direct a decent chunk of my annual donations to the Seattle Public Library. Reading is such a life changer!

Most important technology of 2019: This isn’t a single technology, but I’m really excited about the increase of geospatial services available for various data processing and analysis tasks.

Most important technology of 2021: The EV that can go 400 miles on a charge and has a rapid charge in an hour. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that this actually happens … I totally made it up from my 2021 wish list!

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Be unapologetic in embracing your geek-ness (but don’t be afraid to enjoy your moments of being a total tech luddite).

Website: Tableau community blog

Twitter: @mapsOverlord

Linked In: Sarah Battersby

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