Tag Archives: FOSS4G

Q & A with Kurt Menke, CHM Moderator

By Jenny Rewolinski


Kurt Menke, GISP

The following is a question and answer interview with the moderator of the with Community Health Maps (CHM) blog, Kurt Menke, GISP (Certified geographic information systems (GIS) professional). Kurt has worked with CHM since its inception in 2014 and is a valuable resource for users of CHM.

What is your background?

Kurt: I started out as an archaeologist. I spent 8 years in the desert southwest working on Anasazi pueblo archaeology. I went on to receive a Masters in Geography from the University of New Mexico in 2000. While in graduate school I began working at the UNM’s Earth Data Analysis Center (EDAC). That’s where I really learned about GIS. I worked there for 11 years as a GIS Analyst/Programmer.

When did you being using open source GIS?

It was at EDAC, about 15 years ago, when I was first exposed to open source mapping software. We began using Mapserver for web mapping applications, because it was faster and more stable than the Esri alternative. I realized there was a whole ecosystem of open source tools out there.

How did you first come to work with NLM?

Kurt: John Scott, President of the Center for Public Service Communications and I have collaborated on health related projects with NLM for over 10 years. We first met while I was working at EDAC on a project with the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA). I had developed an app named the Interactive Health Atlas. That project eventually ended and I left the university to create my business Bird’s Eye View. John thought we should take the best parts of the NICOA project to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). It evolved into what we called the Health Equity Atlas. This was custom software we developed, which was really time consuming. It worked great, but wasn’t widely adopted. We learned a valuable lesson, for something like this to be successful, it needs to be something organizations are asking for. No matter how useful it may be, if people don’t have time for it, it will just sit on the shelf.

How did CHM begin?

Kurt: In 2012, John asked me to look at existing smart phone apps. His idea was, rather than developing a completely new application, we could use existing low cost software. Plus we would work with organizations who had mapping as a defined need. I ended up completing a thorough survey of smartphone data collection tools and some of them were perfect. I identified what I thought were the two or three best. We realized we could stitch together a series of low cost intuitive tools that collectively address everyone’s mapping needs.

We settled on Fulcrum, QGIS, and Carto as our core CHM workflow tools. We started with pilot projects at the University of Hawaii and the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle. Showing people how to use these tools via a train-the-trainer approach ended up working really well.

You are a QGIS expert. When did you first begin using QGIS?

Kurt: QGIS was started in 2002 and I began playing with it in 2005. I just discovered it fromDiscoverQGISCover a listserv. At first it was very limited, being little more than a data viewer. But I was really curious to see how it might evolve, so I started following it. It really started becoming a useful alternative in 2010. I gradually migrated to it with my business. I also started teaching GIS classes with it. I used to keep a list of things you could do with ArcGIS that you couldn’t in QGIS. Now it’s come so far that I have a list of things you can do in QGIS that you can’t in ArcGIS!

How has CHM evolved?

Kurt:  Once we realized we had something that would be useful to people, we began looking for partner organizations. These are organizations who work with data and can benefit from mapping, but lack the resources to get started. We conduct workshops and webinars to get people started down the mapping path.

Along the way I thought a blog would be a really helpful tool to keep people up to date with new technology. These tools are constantly improving and I thought this would be a way to share these enhancements with everyone. Later we realized we needed additional resources for people to continue to build their skills after the initial workshops. I developed a series of six labs covering the mapping tools in more detail. These labs were inspired from a separate project I worked on called the GeoAcademy. This is a complete college curriculum for teaching GIS using open source tools. It even won an award!geoacademy_logo_col_5

Our primary goal for CHM has always been to provide tools that are helpful to users. After years of trying to build something from scratch, we are now finally gaining some traction with CHM. It feels like a snowball, rolling downhill and gaining speed. I believe it is both because the tools are powerful and intuitive, plus we are getting better at identifying potential users.

Would you recount one experience with CHM that felt especially influential for CHM’s progress so far?

Kurt: Yes the first thing that comes to mind is the work with the Medical University of


St. Johns HS students learning CHM

South Carolina (MUSC). In early 2015 I taught a CHM workshop to 8 people. The training went well. No one in attendance had ever worked with any type of mapping software before. Yet I was able to show them how to make a data collection form, collect points, and map the data in Carto. The next day I went to a high school on John’s Island and taught several students over their lunch break how to collect data. They picked up on it immediately and spent the semester mapping food and water locations on the island.

Months later, the MUSC participants were so excited by the possibilities that they asked me to come back. This second training had 25 people. Later that year we came back for a third workshop, and 80 people from across MUSC attended! That I could show such a large group, how to work with these tools in a half day was a real proof of concept!


The third workshop at MUSC with 80 particpants

Several projects were inspired these MUSC workshops. Of particular note is Dr. Bryan Heckman’s smoking cessation research project. I must point out that Dr. Deb Williamson and Dana Burshell worked to organize and plan the MUSC trainings and deserve most of the credit for the turnout.

Our successful trainings with MUSC have served as a model for teaching bigger groups such as those at the CHM Symposium at the National Library of Medicine in June, 2016 and recent trainings in Seattle.


The most recent workshop in Seattle

The most gratifying aspect of these workshops was seeing people shed their technological insecurities. It’s common for people to show up and admit they’re scared of the technology. To then see in a few short hours, they are getting it all to work, and actually getting excited about the possibilities, is a beautiful thing.

 What are your plans for the future of CHM?

Kurt: The work that people are doing right now with CHM barely scratches the surface in terms of the potential. I would like to get more community members involved. I envision a scenario where there is an organization can really engage with citizens to map the community. The data could be managed by a central data manager in the organization. It would be such a great way to involve the community in a project directly related to their healthcare.

I’d also like to see someone get past the initial data gathering and map making phase. QGIS has a lot of spatial analysis capabilities. I’d like to see someone push beyond the CHM labs and do some interesting analyses in QGIS or use some of the cool data visualization techniques in Carto.

What advice you would give to new CHM users?

Kurt: Don’t be afraid to dive in and use the tools. Be adventurous and creative with your projects. Don’t be afraid to mess up. That’s how you learn. There is no limit to the kinds of things you can accomplish with mapping and spatial analysis tools. If you can imagine it, it can be done.

A New Version of QGIS v2.14 Has Been Released!

Currently a new version of QGIS is released every four months!  To help users deal with this rapid development pace, the version put out each spring is designated as a long-term release (LTR). This means it will be supported for one calendar year. After that, new stable versions continue to be posted quarterly and any bug fixes associated with those quarterly versions are applied to the LTR. The LTR is recommended for production environments. It has a slower release cycle, and receives regular bug fixes throughout the year. Monday February 29th QGIS 2.14, the next LTR was released. It is nicknamed ‘Essen’ after the town in Germany where a recent developer meeting was held.


QGIS Essen

Essen has a lot of new features. You can visit the Visual Changelog to read about all the new features in detail. You can also see who developed and sponsored each new feature. Community Health Mappers might be especially interested in these new features:

  • the new 2.5 D renderer which allows you to extrude features into space.

Example of 2.5 D Rendering by Nicholas Duggan @ XYHT.com

  • improved labeling
  • better control over map elements in the Print Composer
  • an improved Processing Toolbox
  • the new widget you get by right clicking on a layer in the Layers Panel and choosing Style. It allows you to change the color for a symbol without having to open a single dialog box!

Style Widget

If you are using QGIS you should visit the download page and install the latest version! Note that the Mac installer takes a little longer to assemble and may not be available for several more days.

Happy GIS’ing!

Wildly Successful Community Health Mapping Workshops at MUSC!

Community Health Maps (CHM) conducted it’s largest and most successful workshops ever at the end of September at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). The training at MUSC was divided into three workshops and a presentation. The attendees were a mix of professors, students and researchers, most of whom had little to no experience with GIS. Despite this fact, nearly everyone was able to collect data and make a map. This is a testament to the easy to use nature of the CHM workflow.

It began Monday morning with the first workshop. This was an Intermediate Session for those Community Health Mappers who had been working on projects since the April CHM workshop. We spent two hours covering more advanced topics and answering project specific questions.

Kurt Menke explaining advanced QGIS features.

Kurt Menke explaining advanced QGIS features.

Following that, Kurt Menke presented a CHM project overview at a brown bag lunch session to 30 attendees. Matt Jones closed this session with a 10 minute talk detailing how he used The Community Health Maps workflow this summer to map access to care on Johns Island.

The second workshop was Monday afternoon. It was a two hour session covering field data collection with iForm, and mapping that data online with CartoDB. There were 55 attendees at this session, the vast majority of whom had no GIS experience. In just two hours all 55 attendees were able to collect field data and make a map in CartoDB!

iForm and CartoDB Workshop Attendees

iForm and CartoDB Workshop Attendees

The final workshop on Tuesday was a 5 hour session covering the use of QGIS. The workshop consisted of a custom Charleston based QGIS exercise. Each of the 35 participants worked with a set of Charleston GIS data while learning the basic layout of QGIS. They learned how to add data, style it, and compose a map. The workshop ended with a discussion of each participants goals and project specific questions.

QGIS Workshop Attendees

QGIS Workshop Attendees

In total almost 80 people attended one or more sections of the training! Thanks go out to Dr. Deborah Williamson for hosting the workshops, Dana Burshell for organizing the entire event and assisting during the workshops, and to Sarah Reynolds who was invaluable in providing Mac and QGIS support!

QGIS 2.8.1 Released

Today the next stable version of QGIS was released. It is being called QGIS version 2.8 ‘Wien‘. Wien is German for ‘Vienna‘ which was the host city for the QGIS developer meetings in 2009 and 2014.


QGIS 2.8 Splash Page

Recently a new version of QGIS has been released every four months. This rapid pace of development has its pros and cons. On the plus side, the software is rapidly growing and improving. On the con side it has made it difficult to maintain documentation. It has also been an issue for people working on large projects. They have had to deal with the software changing every four months.

QGIS 2.8 is a special release because it is the first in a series of long-term releases (LTR’s). The idea is that one release per year will be an LTR. This means that the LTR release will be supported and available for download for one year. This way people needing stability can use this until the next LTR is released a year from now.

Some of the highlights are:

  • Numerous bug fixes and stability improvements
  • QGIS Browser is more responsive
  • Ability to select the units in the Measure tool
  • Improvements to editing: better control of snapping and a new suite of Advanced Digitizing tools
  • Improvements to the Map Composer such as better control over coordinate graticules and map rotation.
  • Symbology improvements such as filling polygons with raster images, ability to have multiple styles per layer.

The detailed list of new features can be found here: http://www2.qgis.org/en/site/forusers/visualchangelog28/index.html

Visit the download page and take the new version for a spin. Remember you can install it on Windows, Mac and Linux!


FOSS4G Academy Launched

For the first time there is a complete GIS curriculum based on free and open source (FOSS4G) software! Better yet the material are freely available to everyone. The curriculum consists of five courses:

  • GST 101 – Introduction to Geospatial Technology
  • GST 102 – Spatial Analysis
  • GST 103 – Data Acquisition and Management
  • GST 104 – Cartography
  • GST 105 – Remote Sensing
Examples of FOSS4G Academy QGIS Labs

Examples of FOSS4G Academy QGIS Labs

The courses were developed via the National Information Security and Geospatial Technologies Consortium (NISGTC), under the leadership of Phil Davis (Del Mar College). Kurt Menke (Bird’s Eye View), and Dr. Richard Smith (Texas A & M – Corpus Christi), authored the material which includes: theory, lecture, labs, data and task oriented video tutorials for each lab exercise.

The courses are aligned with the Department of Labors Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM). The GTCM  was published in 2010 and will be revised in 2015. It describes the complete set of knowledge, skills, and abilities required by GIS professionals. It is designed around a hierarchical tiered model of knowledge and promotes use of open source technology.


Geospatial Technology Competency Model

QGIS is the featured software for all courses. When appropriate other FOSS software’s are also included such as GRASS and InkScape.

The vast majority of US based colleges and universities use a single vendor’s proprietary GIS software, making this series of courses very unique. In fact it is the first national attempt at a completely open source GIS curriculum. By their very nature of open source software, there is no marketing engine promoting them. This has slowed the adoption and overall use of open source GIS. One hope is that this material will entice people to learn about the same low cost mapping workflows that the Community Health Maps program is promoting.

The targeted audience is broad and includes:

  • Secondary school educators and students
  • Two and four year college educators and students
  • Students in need of GIS skills
  • Workers seeking to broaden technology skills
  • Anyone desiring QGIS and open source knowledge and skills

The courses are available online at the FOSS4G Academy. Over 2,500 students have already enrolled for these courses demonstrating how in demand these materials are. Visit the FOSS4G Academy now and explore the material!

FOSS4G Academy

FOSS4G Academy


Community Health Maps Presenting at FOSS4G in Portland – September 2014

Kurt Menke will be presenting the Community Health Mapping project in Portland next month at FOSS4G. FOSS4G stands for Free and Open Source for Geospatial. It is the international open source GIS conference.


Free and Open Source for Geospatial – PDX 2014

If you are nearby, or able to travel, it will be a great opportunity to learn more about the project including the workflow and how several groups have implemented it. The conference has eight concurrent tracks beginning Wednesday September 10th and ending on Friday September 12th. Conference talks will cover both new mapping technology and applications. The mapping technology will cover data collection, desktop analysis, cartography and web mapping. Over 1,000 attendees are expected. Mr. Menke’s talk is scheduled for 1:00pm on Wednesday September 10th. Hope to see you there.