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Open Geo interview series - Agathocle deSyracuse

opencagedata:

Today we had a chance to speak with “Agathocle deSyracuse" (pseudonym) who is using OpenStreetMap and other tools to produce maps of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq. His work was recently featured in BBC coverage of the conflict.

1. Who are you and what do you do? Why do you do your work under a pseudonym, and why this pseudonym?

I’m French and I’m working in the software industry. I also have a degree in History and I’m very interested in understanding military strategies and tactics such as Constantinople siege,  Napoleonic wars, or WWII. However, one can understand warfare and geopolitics are not related to my professional life, so that’s why i’m using a pseudonym. Agathocles of Syracuse was a Greek Tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily living in the end of 3rd century BC. He his famous for his expedition to Carthage while his own city was besieged in Syracuse by the same Carthaginians.

2. What is your experience, from the cartographic perspective, using OpenStreetMap to document the conflict in the middle east? How is the coverage, what are the issues involved? 
One year ago, as I had been following Syrian war for a long time already, I realized that maps were missing in order to understand well situation there. There were a few maps you could find in some twitter accounts, but they were either too detailed or engaged (pro-opp. or pro-govt). After having tried a few softwares, I talked about it to one of my friend who is OpenStreetMap France board of Director member and he convinced me to try on OSM. I tried several layer, but the best I found was “MapQuest”, as it provided towns names in both English and Arabic, and provided quite a detailed view. I would say the coverage is good although there are sometimes mistakes, or some uncovered areas, but it is globally a good tool, as I can tell you I have much more small villages names in English than in Wikimapia or Google map.
image
 
3. What tools do you use to make your maps? How do you verify the situation on the ground, and then how do you make the map?
The same friend showed me a very useful web tool, Umap. I started using it, and because I did not have much time to look for other mapping tools, and I already had a big amount of data on Umap, i’m still using it. It’s not a bad software, as I can do most of the maps I want to do, but it lacks of drawing and presentation advanced functionalities. The software however is improving everyday thanks to the community.
The main part of the “job” is to get accurate information about the war, the front-lines, the villages controlled by one party, and so on… There are many ways to do so, and it is difficult to summarize this, but the point is that the more you follow closely a conflict, the more efficient you become. Twitter is a very rich source of information, but you have to know who you can believe / trust or not, and who you know is engaged on which side. Once community of “Syria civil war” know you and appreciate your work, some people come by themselves to help you with value information. They are mostly particulars living in the country, or having relatives there. Also, I use other sources, such as wikipedia collaborative map, but there are many mistakes. Experience helped me to find those mistakes. However, a map is never 100% accurate, because situation is dynamic and information is unequal. For example, Aleppo situation is quite accurate because there are many information, and front-lines are accurate with 100m precision. On the other hand, situation in the desert or in the North-East is much more difficult to know, because of the lack of information and the nature of the field.
 
image
4. What has been the response from readers/followers? Presumably most of it is about the events of the conflict, but any feedback on the maps themselves?
I must say it was a good surprise; followers on my twitter account are quite polite, and for a few of them very friendly. I hardly had any angry answer or comment and it is quite funny as I have Islamic states fans followers as well as Al-Assad or FSA fans followers. Most of time, feedback is about the events or precisions or questions about them. There are also followers thanking me or congratulating me for the map, or giving a #FF. Some other web sites or newspaper also use my maps such as BBC recently about Kobane battle. For me it’s OK as long as they write it comes from @deSyracuse. But most interesting are retweets, as it is the real power of twitter; As for example, maps of Kobane were retweeted between 100 and 160 times, and it always bring new followers. I’m posting image maps which are screenshots of OSM, and once a month I post the link for the whole zoomable map, such as this one.
 
As far as I know, there are 3 or 4 other serious mappers on Syria, each one with a “speciality” : @arabthomness, doing twice a month global country view; @archicivilians is pro-opp. and doing very good detailed battlefield maps, as well as @petolucem who is pro-regime. 
 
image
5. OSM just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary. Where do you think the project will be in 10 years?
Well I really have no idea, as 10 years in software world is like 100 years in goods manufacturing. I just hope it will continue to grow, and that one day it will allow to make satellite maps mapping.
Many thanks Agathocle for your efforts in making the world aware of the terrible situation. Thanks also for taking the time to speak with us.
You can see all the Open Geo interviews here. If you are or know of someone we should interview, please get in touch, we’re always looking to promote people doing interesting things with open geo data

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  • AnonymousDoes GIS get better once you're done school and start getting paid for it?
  • fyeahgis

    I can’t personally speak to that, since i didnt got to college for GIS. I’ll say though, if you don’t love GIS / Maps now, i hope you fall in love soon.

    Having said that, i do love it, and yes it’s awesome to get paid for doing what you love.

    What say ye faithful fyeahgis’ers?

  • f-yeah GIS

    dagrat:

    scientistjz:

    alwaysoffsides:

    I took every GIS class I could possibly take in grad school because it’s a necessary part of my current job. I liked GIS in school even if it was frustrating at times. I definitely have more of a GIS skill set to offer than some of my colleagues.

    If GIS is just a part of your future career, it does “get better”. You get to see your models run and help colleagues, other departments, or the public. I think it’s fun and rewarding to see my work being utilized outside of getting a grade.

    Mapping is great and I hope you fall in love with it and see what it can do outside of a classroom. 

    Cheers. 

    fyeahgis
    1. Do what you love whether that’s GIS or (fill in the blank) which makes the job more enjoyable 2. Having recently graduated w a Bachelor’s of Science in both Environmental Studies, and GIS, I personally enjoyed my classwork and like working w GIS at work even more 3. A bit of encouragement, (speaking from my own experience) GIS generally doesn’t come easy. I learn the most about GIS when I come across a tricky obstacle while doing GIS. This is where perseverance and resourcefulness come in! Try Internet forums, LinkedIn GIS groups and/or other Internet social networks, and good old hardcopy books, to get ideas how to solve the problem. Often times I may not find a direct answer to my issue but I do however tend to get ideas about different ways to approach the issue just through some Internet research.

    If you don’t like it now, GIS won’t be better when you get paid for it.  You have to have a high pain tolerance.  Be paid for something you enjoy.  Is it nice being paid to trouble shoot, fix code, run script, join tables, create shp files, find date, create data, edit data, re-do everything you just did?? Then yes, it’s better being paid to do all that.  But, you have to enjoy it.  

View answer
  • 1 day ago
  • 15
  • AnonymousDoes GIS get better once you're done school and start getting paid for it?
  • fyeahgis

    I can’t personally speak to that, since i didnt got to college for GIS. I’ll say though, if you don’t love GIS / Maps now, i hope you fall in love soon.

    Having said that, i do love it, and yes it’s awesome to get paid for doing what you love.

    What say ye faithful fyeahgis’ers?

  • f-yeah GIS

    scientistjz:

    alwaysoffsides:

    I took every GIS class I could possibly take in grad school because it’s a necessary part of my current job. I liked GIS in school even if it was frustrating at times. I definitely have more of a GIS skill set to offer than some of my colleagues.

    If GIS is just a part of your future career, it does “get better”. You get to see your models run and help colleagues, other departments, or the public. I think it’s fun and rewarding to see my work being utilized outside of getting a grade.

    Mapping is great and I hope you fall in love with it and see what it can do outside of a classroom. 

    Cheers. 

    fyeahgis 1. Do what you love whether that’s GIS or (fill in the blank) which makes the job more enjoyable 2. Having recently graduated w a Bachelor’s of Science in both Environmental Studies, and GIS, I personally enjoyed my classwork and like working w GIS at work even more 3. A bit of encouragement, (speaking from my own experience) GIS generally doesn’t come easy. I learn the most about GIS when I come across a tricky obstacle while doing GIS. This is where perseverance and resourcefulness come in! Try Internet forums, LinkedIn GIS groups and/or other Internet social networks, and good old hardcopy books, to get ideas how to solve the problem. Often times I may not find a direct answer to my issue but I do however tend to get ideas about different ways to approach the issue just through some Internet research.
View answer
  • 1 day ago
  • 15
  • AnonymousDoes GIS get better once you're done school and start getting paid for it?
  • fyeahgis

    I can’t personally speak to that, since i didnt got to college for GIS. I’ll say though, if you don’t love GIS / Maps now, i hope you fall in love soon.

    Having said that, i do love it, and yes it’s awesome to get paid for doing what you love.

    What say ye faithful fyeahgis’ers?

  • f-yeah GIS

    badmapblog:

    it’s not the field I want to go to school for and have as a life-long career, but god damn am I happy I tripped, stumbled, and fell into it because I really love the kind of work you get to do and what you get to create as it’ll be endlessly interesting for me to have as my 1st career. before I finish my degree I want to work in it as much as possible because it really is super cool.
    even if I just get to make bad maps for the army 😄

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