Navigation based technologies have reinvented the concept of travel and transportation in the modern society, through effective GIS based products that are used by millions of people around the world. 

Poorni Badrinath, our next pathbreaker, is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Cartography from Technical University of Munich.

Poorni talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to the field of cartography through her diverse experiences ranging from geo-tagging big cats (tigers) for identifying their habitats, to working on improvising the map data critical for enhancing routing and navigation in cities.

For students, we have seen the world around us through maps. You have the opportunity to design newer and better maps that can address not only navigation issues but environmental challenges as well !

Poorni, can you tell us about yourself?

I come from Bangalore, in India, a tech savvy city. Growing up, few of my my interests were reading, writing and travelling. I love exploring places and checking out what makes each city unique. I have always tried to combine all three of my interests in my daily life, with travel blogging, writing short stories and mapping the new places I come across while exploring. 

I grew up in a normal, humble, and a little conservative background. My father worked at Kirloskar Electric Company and my mother was a school teacher. Both of their world views have had a huge impact on me. They have shaped me as an individual, provided me guidance, and helped me in understanding which path I wanted to take and which path I didn’t want to take. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For my Bachelors, I chose Environmental Sciences, as that was my strong suit from school and my first real introduction to the world of maps and their critical usage in the real environment.

What prompted you to opt for such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Environmental Sciences have always been not only my strong subject at school but also a field where the application of maps had a real impact on me. The visualization of environmental issues on maps made it easier for me to understand the tremendous influence or effects of anthropogenic activities on our environment.

One of my biggest influences that led me to this field was my high school Geography teacher, who made teaching this subject so much fun that it was impossible to not take it seriously! 

Taking one of the subjects of Classic Engineering made me realise that just a common degree in Engineering wouldn’t make me happy. I wanted something that I would enjoy and be passionate about to make that my career. 

My internship at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and my first job at Mapbox as a map data analyst made me firmly believe that mapping and Cartography would be my career. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

To start with, it was not an easy decision. When I was choosing my major in 2012, Cartography as a career was still rare, and not a lot of people knew about the program. My process of choosing this field came from the fact that I really enjoyed mapping and field work. 

Choosing Environmental Sciences in Bachelor’s was the first step. Environmental Sciences are one of the major applicable fields for cartography and maps, and the my fifth semester covered varied applications of GIS. During my Bachelor’s, I interned with ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment,) and worked with Dr. Arvind Madhyastha and my colleague Venetia Sharanya on spatial distribution of birds, the causes of their habitat destruction, and how certain elements caused more harm on their population numbers. This was one of my first real projects on mapping, combining my interest in ornithology and cartography. 

After my Bachelor’s, I took a break to understand how I wanted to pursue my career. I took an introductory mapping course, Mapping Essentials by Dr. H S Sudhira, at Gubbi Labs, a research collective, and accompanied researchers on field trips to understand more about how mapping works and its related use cases, which led me to my internship at Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore. At the internship, I worked on photo-tagging of big cats to verify the locations they were found in to understand the habitat of tigers and panthers in the forests of Karnataka. 

While mapping these locations, I was looking for some data that I can use, and a map on which i could map the specific birding locations and mammal habitats. This search led me to OpenStreetMap, an open source mapping platform that allows users to contribute to updating the map. More research on this portal gave me an understanding of the companies that use open source maps. 

My interest in OpenStreetMap led me to apply for a data analyst position at Mapbox, where I worked on improving the data specially for roads and navigation all across United States of America. At Mapbox, I learnt critical skills of open source mapping and also gained real insight on the real world usage of commercial maps and how we could improve them for enhancing usability and aesthetic of maps. 

After two and a half years at Mapbox, I joined Grab taxi, a South East Asian ride hailing company that offers services like booking cabs, ordering food and groceries. At Grab, I was the program manager for maps, working on improvising the critical map data for enhancing routing and navigation used daily in all Grab related services, and was leading the learning and development for maps and all the related processes.  

In the course of five years, I have met a lot of people working in the same field, attending maps related conferences and events like State of the Map, NID Design Fest, Berlin Wikidatacon. I have given talks at various events about maps, quality validation and making of custom maps. These interactions have been vital for me to grow as a person of confidence in the field of Cartography. Several notable people who have been a key influence in my life are Dr. HS Sudhira, Dr. KV Gururaj, Dr. Aravind Madhyastha, Ramya Badrinath, Sajjad Anwar, Arun Ganesh, Pradeep Varadaraja Banawara, Sivaram Ramachandran, Jinal Foflia, Sriram Iyer, Philipp Kandall, Robinson Kudali and Vasanti RS, who have all been important teachers for me in this field, and they have contributed massively to my journey of learning and exploration..

How did you get your first break?

Mapping on OpenStreetMap led to check the other companies that use the data of OpenStreetMap. This is when I learnt about Mapbox, a custom maps and navigation based company that makes maps for companies like Snapchat, BMW. This was my first big break, where I got to learn and experiment on so many map related areas, learn the challenges of map design and understand the real world usage of a large scale digital map. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

There are many challenges when you work with an open source platform. OpenStreetMap has millions of contributors, and various communities who are local mappers, who are aware of the ground truth or the real scenario of each city much better than arm chair mappers like us who are in different cities working on mapping other cities. 

While I worked out of Bangalore, I have mapped cities like San Francisco, Singapore, Jakarta, Washington DC, Berlin, Copenhagen etc. I have used sources for street level photos like Mapillary, Kartacam, as well as Satellite images like Bing, Maxar etc.

Mapping from different places involve a lot of challenges when you don’t have the most recent data. In such cases, you have to rely on the community, be vocal, and ask questions, and if there is any mistakes done on maps, you have to take responsibility and learn from them. This approach has been my greatest strength. 

Where do you work now? What do you do in your current role?

I am currently pursuing my Master’s in Cartography from Technical University of Munich. After five years of work, I wanted to transition from data science to routing and design, and this course offers me all the insights into smoothly transitioning to my interested line of work within the geo field. 

I received a scholarship from the Chair of Cartography, Technical University of Munich for pursuing the course, and I applied for it through the program itself. There are also other scholarships like Erasmus or the DAAD scholarship that one can apply.

How does your work benefit the society? 

Maps are a critical part of our lives now. Everyone needs to find a location every single day, whether it is for tourism, for finding a new restaurant or for a new place or even for a library or a book store. Updated maps and critical understanding of routing make it simple to build effective products that can be used by millions of people around the world. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you! 

Building custom maps and designing mapper code specifically to teach new mappers the correct way of mapping on open source maps are two projects that I am very fond of! 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

From whatever I have learnt by figuring my own path out, all I can say is always choose the field that you love the most. Every single day becomes fun and you look forward to working and giving your best.

Future Plans?

After completing my Master’s, I will look forward to working in the maps sector again, but this time on the design and the routing engine side of the maps. I look forward to building meaningful apps that use maps, with a unique design that is both aesthetic driven and user friendly.