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Learn Together

Over the last couple of years I’ve had this nagging feeling, a bit like standing on the very edge of the tech community looking in, unsure if or where I fit in. I know that I want to be on the inside, but it hasn’t always been clear why. Maybe a sense of inertia or curiosity or the lure of greater employability. Probably a little of each, but I think the biggest factor has to do with the desire to know something more completely. In this case, the “something” is technology, both in the computers/internet/software sense and also in the more meta, “how does technology influence society/the environment/art/etc?” sense. To be so inundated by and reliant on technology without a deep sense of understanding feels wrong, incomplete, and perhaps a little irresponsible, especially since a core element of my career has involved using technology to help communities solve problems.

So, whether through conscious effort or awkward stumbling, I’ve started amassing knowledge. I’m not just interested in learning how to code in a specific language, though that is certainly among my interests. Rather, because my learning style generally follows a ‘wide-net’ approach, I want to better understand the communities surrounding tech, the culture of open source, the greater industry’s big issues and how, if at all, I can make tech jive with my other professional interests. To that end, I’ve spent a lot of time reading - blogs, twitter topics, GitHub issues, etc. Trying to learn to code on your own is lonely and business and I often find myself wishing for a social outlet, if only to ask questions, share stories or just say, “hey, I got this thing to work!” It’s also the kind of endeavor that, despite all the fancy new tools welcoming newcomers, feels more overwhelmingly huge the farther you dig (relevant).

The lonely road

If you spend any amount of time digging through Quora threads on beginning programming, especially if those threads have anything to do with coding bootcamps, it’s easy get the sense that all great developers have honed their crafts alone, putting their noses to the grindstone during every spare moment. I’m certain this is true for many developers, but if the industry is to change perceptions and welcome a greater diversity of people, this lone programmer mythology will probably have to evolve. I’m no stranger to learning on my own, making mistakes or cursing out loud at my computer in an empty apartment, but have found that I can only get so far on any given topic before I need to consult other human beings, and I suspect a lot of people feel the same way.

The geo people

My tie to tech has always been my work focus on geospatial technology. My work involves analyzing all manner of geo data, creating map products for publication and figuring out how to help communities and organizations put their data to use solving one problem or another. While it’s certainly a valuable tool, one can only go so far as an ArcGIS user before feeling like little more than an expert fixer of ArcGIS-specific bugs. To make matters worse, without a moderate comfort level in programming, official help docs can be quite intimidating and, due to sweeping changes between versions (backward compatibility would be nice, guys), may lead users down a dead end road to frustration-ville.

In my experience, most ArcGIS users became ArcGIS users in college, where academic software deals have made ESRI’s suite of products the de facto choice for making any kind of geospatial product. However, with unofficial support forums like gis.stackexchange.com popping up, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the huge and vibrant world of open-source, web-friendly products and, perhaps more importantly, their respective communities. These days, you can’t go to a GIS users group, even those oriented to ArcGIS in particular, without hearing about Leaflet, OpenStreetMap or MapBox/TileMill, and for good reason. A small army of dedicated volunteers, companies and organizations have done what ESRI couldn’t, not just by building better tools, but by building a community for themselves and leaving the door open behind them.

As I’ve started following the open-source geo community, contributing where I can, I’ve inadvertently started developing some of the tech acumen I’d been looking for. Most projects have active GitHub communities (hi, Maptime!), some have beautifully-written guides, and others have totally accessible and beginner-friendly conferences. Central members are active and responsive on Twitter and there are new and innovative meetups popping up all over the place.

Business time

This spring, I found myself with a bunch of extra vacation and frustrated at my slow pace of learning on my own. A reminder about the upcoming State of the Map conference popped up on Twitter and I decided to go. Even if I couldn’t find a way to tie it into my professional development schedule at work, it seemed like a pretty casual and social conference and hey, spring time in D.C. is nothing to sneeze at. E and I threw down on some plane tickets and started planning for a nice, long weekend out of town.

If I’m being completely honest, the first two days of the conference were kind of awkward. I didn’t know anyone, there seemed to be a lot of community norms I didn’t understand and I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute. I’ve never been particularly active on OpenStreetMap (though that’s changing) and I’m not a developer, so it was tough initiating conversations. On the second day of the conference, I found myself at a lunch table with a bunch of computer scientists, just listening in, when somebody mentioned their work using geo data for an urban planning project. We introduced ourselves, started geeking out about planner-y things (stakeholders! prioritizing!) and promptly spooked our computer scientist friends away from the table. My new friend introduced me to some other beginners and recommended some social conference activities.

The rest of the conference was fantastic. I got to meet and speak with people who’s work I’ve been following closely for years, have drinks with the people building the future of geospatial, and got myself involved with some truly innovative projects. It’s something we all forget, especially those of us who spend most of our waking hours in front of a screen, but sometimes being in a room with like-minded people is what it takes to accelerate one’s work. Shared experience and communities of practice put work into a social context and reinforce the reasons we do our work in the first place. Are you motivated by building cool new tools? Who is going to use your tools? Do you want to make a social impact? There are people just like you pushing toward similar goals - how can you learn from one another?

Open source communities

I’ve been a longtime advocate of open source software, but I’m not sure I’ve always understood why. My best guess is that it’s a mix of vague feelings of democracy mixed with an aversion to large, monolithic corporations. Probably not the best reasons to advocate for something.

What I came away with after State of the Map, besides a ton of notes and new Twitter friends, is a better understanding of what this whole open source thing is all about. Yeah, it’s about things like licenses, pull requests and free (as in both beer and speech) software. But I don’t think that’s all, or even most of the story. I think people contribute because of the community. Because they want to help build something better and because doing so together builds a sense of community and belonging. I’m drawn to the ideals of the burgeoning open data community because of the impact it promises. I believe open data can deliver on its promises, but ultimately, I participate not for the data’s sake, but for my community.

The best projects, whether they set out to democratize the globe, turn vacant lots in community open space or push the boundaries of social interaction online, understand and respond to their communities. Sometimes it’s a conscious effort and other times it’s just the result of a particular kind of attitude or personality.

Bringing it all together

I’m continuing to learn more about the people, organizations and ideas the drive the technology that makes my work and life possible. Some days, the slog of learning alone is hard to overcome. Other days, I remember that I’m surrounded by phenomenal communities, some local and some international who’ve all overcome these things before and are dedicated to bringing others into the fold. Over the next year, I hope to dig in deeper, share some knowledge of my own, and hopefully give back a bit of what I’ve gained.