Cartographer’s Story #7, by Vanessa Knoppke-Wetzel
“It always seems impossible until it is done.”
There are a lot of maps that I have enjoyed creating, whether it was because of the creative design process, the data analysis and discovery, or just simply what the map’s purpose was. However, so far, none of those can top my favorite mapping experience: a whirlwind 10 day adventure to Mongolia to help the Asia Foundation map the gers surrounding Ulaanbaatar.
I remember it well — and yet often feel like it was a dream, because it was so short and so sudden. I was just beginning my second year of grad school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Impostor Syndrome* (oh grad school) was alive and thriving inside me.
* a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud” — often happens when also surrounded by amazingly brilliant, accomplished, awesome people.
I applied to the Cartographic Consultant position when the opportunity presented itself — especially since I assumed that there was no way I would get the job.
While ever doubtful of my abilities at the time — like any over-achieving, passionate, bright-eyed graduate student — I tried not to let nerves get in my way all the time, so I applied to the Cartographic Consultant position when the opportunity presented itself — especially since I assumed that there was no way I would get the job.
Imagine my shock a couple days later when I found myself sitting on a plane looking down at the other side of the world as I landed in Ulaanbaatar, not knowing much besides that I was going to help map some gers.
So in September of 2013, my nervous, constantly-doubting, grad student self stepped into another world where I was suddenly regarded as The Expert on Specific Things. And while I clearly questioned my own abilities and wasn’t sure if I deserved to be there, in the first couple days I helped to:
- understand the local GIS Analysts’ work flows (Day 1)
- determine what the initial drafts’ designs were and how to best replicate them (Day 1)
- listen to the graphic designer that made the initial drafts for the Asia Foundation’s pitch to the mayor to sell the idea of the maps (Day 1)
- and realized that everything needed to be re-structured from scratch, so that the local GIS Analysts (who had never worked in design software before) could ultimately understand the process and re-create it on their own (Day 1)
- Standardize everyone’s GIS workflows, so that sharing and editing both ArcMap and Adobe Illustrator files would be a breeze (Day 2)
- Write tutorials on how to edit everything in Adobe Illustrator (which no one had worked with before) — and created multiple map templates for the different issues: waste management, trash pickup, water access, road lights, and more (Day 2)
- (after the tutorials were translated and printed), give an unplanned-workshop in the morning with dummy data for the process so that the local GIS Analysts could practice and ask questions (Day 3)…and then dive in so that the ~300 maps could be created in the last 7 days
- determine a workflow checklist so that no one was working on a file at the same time, in addition to creating a revision system, in which a finished map got reviewed by a different person before being “approved” and saved in a separate, “final files” folder
The next 7 days were long and tiring, but worth it all. Not a minute was wasted, and all the prep during the first 3 days was immensely helpful. Everyone knew exactly what needed to be done and how. If anyone forgot any particular steps, there were written instructions on how to do the process, in addition to help from fellow team members and myself. By the end of my time there, about 290 maps and been finished, and a few days after I returned to the USA, all were finished and sent off to the mayor.
Internally I was still wondering if I was worthy of being there, but eventually when I took the time to look back, I clearly saw that I was.
My time in Ulaanbaatar was so filled to the brim that all I thought about while I was in Mongolia was the job and what needed to be done. I just took every minute as it came, and didn’t do much self-reflection. Internally I was still wondering if I was worthy of being there, but eventually when I took the time to look back, I clearly saw that…
From the minute I started, I knew what to evaluate in order to determine and solve multiple problems, in addition to creating the tutorials and re-design concepts to get the maps finished. Additionally, I hadn’t just helped to create a lot of maps (that helped a lot of people) but I also proved to myself that I was capable of teaching and sharing information — if I could teach people who had never worked in a software before, and also do so while not speaking their language: then I was capable of teaching anything I set my heart to!
My moral for this cartography story: Sometimes it takes an experience outside of your current comfort zone to really learn about what you are capable of doing.