In an interview with Silicon Republic, Antonia Blankenberg explains how UX Tech can bring maps to the masses
Press Release : 13/09/2023
- Professional journey began with Esri Ireland as a GIS Consultant and quickly advanced to advanced a Senior GIS Consultant
- Focusing on UX (user experience) allows us to design GIS apps that are easy for anyone to use
- StoryMaps and Dashboards are a visually appealing way to share GIS learnings that the public can engage with
Can you tell me a little bit about your professional life so far and how you came to the job you have now?
Even though I was interested in a scientific career, I wanted to explore something beyond the typical science fields. I’ve always had a love for geography, which I studied in Trinity College Dublin after the Leaving Certificate. I discovered my passion for Geographic Information Systems (GIS) when I took a module on the subject as part of my course, which then motivated me to pursue a Master's in Geographical Information Science in Technological University Dublin (TUD). This path brought me to Esri Ireland, where I began my professional journey as a GIS Consultant.
Esri Ireland places a strong emphasis on learning and growth, and values personal and professional development. The company offers various programmes, like regular training courses covering technical and practical skills, along with career coaching and a buddy system. Initiatives like these showcase the supportive atmosphere nurtured by Esri Ireland, promoting ongoing development. With the opportunities it provides and my determination, I quickly advanced to become a Senior GIS Consultant. Recently, I achieved another milestone by successfully completing Esri Ireland’s Lead Consultant Development Programme, which prepared me for my current role.
What is geographical information systems in very simple terms? ie How would you explain it to a secondary school pupil if they were to shadow you for work experience?
Imagine GIS as a tool that paints a visual representation of the world on your computer screen. It's like blending geography with regular computer data. Through GIS, we analyse data to make it easily comprehensible. This can involve crafting printed maps or creating maps that are web-based and interactive. Other times, it involves building informative Dashboards or conducting surveys to gather data out in the field. Everyone might have a slightly different way of explaining it based on how they use it.
From enhancing city planning and optimising farming techniques, to mapping emergencies like COVID-19 and advancing communication and travel systems, the real-world applications of GIS are limitless.
If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical working day?
Well, to be honest, no two days are the same! Generally, my role revolves around tech leadership. I’m involved in designing solutions, estimating project needs, and identifying project requirements. I also help to guide projects from a technical standpoint. I’m responsible for ensuring that projects are kept on track and delivered to a high standard, while providing support to colleagues. I also spend time on DevOps to oversee consultants' work. Another part I enjoy is UX (user experience) design, where I focus on making GIS apps that are easy for anyone to use, even if they’re not tech-savvy.
What skills do you use – can be interpersonal skills or creative skills as well as tech skills.
I believe that one of my strongest skills is problem solving. Every client and every project presents a unique challenge, and we need to find solutions—from gathering data to processing and making it useful.
Mentoring is another area I enjoy, whether it's guiding colleagues or teaching them how things work. I've had the privilege of mentoring several new hires in recent years, assisting them in their learning journey and addressing any queries. Helping people to learn is a passion of mine in all areas of life, including music and tutoring.
I really enjoy learning new things and always strive to improve my skills. Since the GIS industry is always changing, it's crucial to keep up with the latest developments. I believe in the value of continuous learning, and this is something that Esri Ireland also encourages.
I also take part in an annual GIS challenge called the 30-Day Map Challenge, held every November. It's a fun way to create maps based on daily themes. This challenge not only connects us with the wider GIS community but also encourages us to present data visually and create appealing maps. Many of us at Esri Ireland, including myself, join in and use different tools like images and code to make interesting maps.
When I'm not immersed in GIS, I find joy in learning new songs as a member of a brass band, called TBL8 Brass. We travel around the country, playing at various summer music festivals. Recently, we had the amazing experience of performing for President Higgins and took to the stage at Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co. Laois, marking our fourth year at the festival.
Has the technology you use for your job changed since you began in your current role? What tech-related changes have you seen?
The landscape is ever-changing. If you ask a typical GIS professional, they'll likely talk about tool accuracy and capabilities. What really excites me is focusing on UX. Initially, the focus was on obtaining and providing data. What's incredible now is the shift toward a comprehensive UX, covering the entire journey of data. We're involved in the complete design of data presentation, crafting what looks like a full-fledged website for users. Esri Ireland also designs and publishes a range of StoryMaps highlighting different celebrations, historical events, or culturally significant dates across the country. These maps provide a more captivating way to visualise information, expanding beyond mere data management.
The enhancements in UX have also greatly boosted collaboration and information sharing. While technology used to have more limitations a few years back, today everything is incredibly adaptable. We can fine-tune solutions to fit each customer’s exact requirements, creating a bespoke approach. This personalised touch translates to more effective results. Our tool, Experience Builder, empowers us to create from the ground up, granting us full control to deliver a truly tailored experience for our clients.
What are the most challenging aspects and the most enjoyable aspects of your job?
Sometimes, figuring out exactly what a customer needs can be tricky. We often call this process "peeling the onion," as it can be like solving a puzzle. The real challenge is identifying the root problem. But when you find the solution, it's really satisfying. It's great to see a project go live, watch customers use the solution, and see them benefit from it. We've had customers tell us that problems that used to take days or weeks are now solved in minutes. Hearing success stories like this is truly gratifying and validates all the effort that goes into the work.
Additionally, sharing GIS with the public through StoryMaps and Dashboards is something I really enjoy. This extends beyond the realm of GIS or data analysis – it's a visually appealing way to share a lot of information and about fostering continuous learning. Seeing information shared interactively and in a user-friendly way is really fulfilling and it's rewarding to see the public engage with StoryMaps online.