Mapping the World with Anca Brișan
After spending some time talking to Anca Brișan, a cartographer at Yardi Romania since 2010, one thing is certain in the Google Maps era: to be successful in the industry, it is not enough to be a cartographer, it’s a fusion of a few sciences needed to serve geoinformation of any kind on the web. She is happy to be living in this era as she thinks that now is a great moment to be a cartographer for some very good reasons: the massive amount of data available—from all over the globe, from all kind of fields—but also thanks to the fast development of the technologies used to process, visualize and interact with spatial data.
Anca Brișan is focusing her efforts on the PropertyShark product and agreed to talk to us about her experience in the field.
What first drew you to the fields of geography and cartography?
Back in my high school years, I used to work with my father in the cadaster field. He is a surveyor, now retired, but back then we were going on the field, mostly near Cluj, to measure all the data needed for the cadastral documentations we were developing. Back at home (our office), I was in charge with the computer work. I remember it was a DOS program that was used for all the computations needed to determine the absolute coordinates of the measured properties. If it sounds daunting, let me say it was way better with this program than doing it manually, which would have taken a whole lot longer. Thus, it was an easy, natural thing to study surveying, cartography and GIS. Yet, I made the decision to jump deeper into this domain when I became an Erasmus student in Glasgow, enrolled at Geoinformation Technology and Cartography studies.
Is this job as you hoped it would be?
The massive amount of data PropertyShark was using was the first thing that caught my eye, followed by the endless number of maps uploaded on the site. Another appealing feature for me is the web mapping aspect of it, mostly the “WEB”, interactive part. I was also amazed by how simple it looked to have a GIS cadaster online—that’s how I was perceiving PropertyShark.
For my final master’s degree, I wanted to create a national GIS cadastral infrastructure for Romania. That’s when I discovered how difficult it is to gather parcel based information from both a graphical and an attribute point of view, not to mention the impossibility to have all the required information in one place: from the land registry office, tax office, urbanism office, to details about property price and so forth.
At PropertyShark, you have it all: a ton of information about a single parcel and countless ways to look at distribution, relations and patterns by simply using the maps on the site. I’ve been in this team for almost 7 years and I consider there’s still a lot of data here to be explored and new ways to display it to the user. Wouldn’t it be nice to let the users interact with the data for their own purposes? After all these years, I still enjoy this dance between technical aspects and a catchy visual output.
Here’s a New York City Parcel / Building Outlines Map that Anca and our maps team have worked on. It is one of the 5,000+ maps that the team has created for Property Shark.
What are your day-to-day tasks?
Every day I work with geometries representing different features or patterns, like parcels, school zones, toxic sites, zoning areas, landmarks, crime incidents, bus routes and many more. These geometries first need a thorough verification. Afterward, I start processing them and their respective data, which then can become a map, unless we redirect the output toward other Yardi teams that need the processed data. Mostly, the final output of our work is the map, either a new map or the update of a map. Here is the real fun part as I get to combine the mapscript coding part and data interrogation with map design. It’s magical to see the visual output of all the code lines behind, which give a sense and a perspective to all that prepared geometries and data.
What skills do you need to do the job well?
For any job nowadays you need an appropriate technical background and suitable personal qualities. Of course, computer science knowledge is a must, as well as a sense for graphic arts. But first, I think you need to love maps 🙂
On the computer science side, GIS (Geographic Information System/Science) knowledge is essential. Spatial data and algorithms understanding are in high regard, as well as different types of data conversion and maintenance. In addition, the ability to perform GIS analysis and create data processing workflows and schemas are required. A desired skill is a good grasp of computer programming, as sometimes understanding the code behind a problem is enough to solve it. Of course, if you can write code, it’s even better.
A very specific skill is spatial thinking/imagining, in this line of work you need to understand and sometimes imagine physical and abstract places and phenomena. You need to understand and at the same time visualize how to tell the story you need to tell in the map, and how you can visually answer complex questions and situations.
Other personal skills needed are: being able to organize your own work, attention to details—which are very important—analytical thinking and logical approach, being able to concentrate in monotone tasks, while having the ability to spot new data, new technologies and solutions that could be useful anywhere in our mapping chain. And you need to fit in the team, but that’s not hard at all 🙂
Are there any downsides?
For me, because I’m a very dynamic person who needs to do and try new things, the only downside is when I must stay on projects that need repetitive actions. That’s when I reminisce what my karate teacher told me—being able to concentrate in a repetitive task, takes you up one level in mastering a situation.
Did you get the opportunity to go out into the field with researchers to experience the landscape you are mapping?
Yes, as a student, while working with my father, I got a real feel of what collecting large scale spatial data means.
In the U.S., I had a very nice experience while visiting our New York office. There we had the chance to visit Nassau Land Registries and attend foreclosure auctions in Nassau and Queens counties. We got a grasp of how Americans think of different kinds of administrative areas—like unincorporated areas, which we don’t have in Romania—and school attendance zones. Furthermore, the trip helped us understand how they envision neighborhoods and what multiple addresses mean in NYC, and let me just say that they can be quite many 🙂
How do you keep current with what is going on in cartography?
There are a few ways we are doing it, one of it is by participating in two annual geospatial open source conferences, a local one in Cluj-Napoca and an international one. Every year, one or two members of our team attend the European or worldwide FOSS4G (Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial) conference. We have annual or trimestral updates of the proprietary GIS software we are using. We also acquire different GIS, Cartography or programming books and do online courses.
Any advice for future cartographers?
I would say that enthusiasm, dedication, curiosity and a lot of work towards geoinformation technology and cartographic design can take you as far as you want to get.