Meet your GIS podcast host: Daniel O’Donohue
Location: Denmark/Middle of EU-Land.
Origin: New Zealand/Heaven on Earth.
Status: Happily married with kids
Fun fact: Tramper/More on it later.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF. HOW DID YOU GET INTO GIS?
I was doing something completely different in my early 20s.
After finishing high school in New Zealand, it was clear that I wasn’t destined for academia. Instead, I went to an outdoor recreation academy—to train as an outdoor guide. I studied rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, and hiking, or tramping as we call it back home.
I spent the next seven years taking people on adventures in the outdoors.
I was restless. I started traveling the world. I went to the States, Canada, Mexico and spent a fair bit of time in Central America. I moved around Europe, mostly on my bike, looking for rocks to climb on.
When I was 27, I’d been living in Germany for a couple of years. I taught myself German and thought of myself as an intelligent person. I mean… two languages. I should be at university with this much talent.
I packed up my troubles; flew back to New Zealand and signed up for a sociology course. True story.
My mum, as always, injected some much-needed reality into the situation and said to me,
“But Daniel, you cannot read.”
Thanks, mum. Love mums, don’t you?
But she was right. I’m still not very good at reading or writing. Not in a dyslexic way, but I’ve had challenges around them to this day. You see, every time I write my name, I have to say the letters out in my head, so I don’t make an embarrassing mistake.
But I was interested in cultures and how they change over time. I was sure sociology would be an excellent fit for me. It was, and along the way, I discovered geography.
What a crossover.
The overlap is incredible between sociology and the physical world. I finally found my place.
Then I got introduced to GIS and Earth observation (or remote sensing), which honestly, I hated. I took a few classes but couldn’t warm to it. Still, I had to pass the semester. As I was preparing for the exams, going through my notes, reading the required reading—slowly but surely, the usefulness of it all dawned on me.
I was suddenly hooked.
I took every course and practical lab I could find in GIS and remote sensing. Later, I volunteered to be a tutor in the labs and help anyone who’d let me. I actively looked for extra-curricular activities and projects I could be involved with for the experience. I got several scholarships and embarked on my Master’s in geography.
During the last year of my degree, I worked at The Geospatial Research Center (New Zealand). It was a fantastic experience. I was surrounded by incredible people and found myself overcome by imposter syndrome.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned a lot just from being in the room. I wasn’t going to point out to anyone else that I didn’t belong there.
I finally saw the opportunities in GIS, what problems it could solve, the hows, and the implications.
There wasn’t a ton of money in it. It was all improvised. It was inspiring.
Five years after I started my degree, I was done. I had my Master’s in geography, met and married a Danish woman. Not a random Danish woman, but a Danish woman I’d been together with for several years.
And we moved… to Denmark.
I know. Looking back, even for me, it seems… crazy.
It’s a challenging way to start your professional career. Pick a country on the opposite side of the earth where people speak another language. Time your arrival at the end of a rather nasty financial crisis and look for a job.
I’m being dramatic here. But what can I say? They were hard times.
It was my technical skills that got me through the first doors. What else made me stand out?
I documented a bunch of experiences around my university years. Not just the stuff that I did at university, but the different projects I was involved in, like tutoring or The Geospatial Research Center stint.
For the first few years of my career, I was just grateful to have a job and be in the industry; to practice and improve on my craft. I was happy to bumble along. We had two kids. I was learning Danish, trying to fit into society and adjust to a landscape with almost no discernible terrain.
These were significant shifts for me, and I had plenty on my plate.
THEN TRAGEDY STRUCK
Something happened that would change the course and the trajectory of everything, including how I thought about geospatial and my role in the industry.
My father-in-law, who had played a massive part in my time in Denmark, went for a run one day and never came back.
You can imagine the devastation of finding him in a muddy puddle of water on a deserted forestry road two days later.
My wife and I were crushed. Everything went on hold. I wasn’t interested in anything, let alone advancing my career.
WE SWITCHED TO SURVIVAL MODE AS A FAMILY
During this time, niggling questions showed up in my head.
Am I living my life meaningfully? Am I helping anyone? Am I making things better for anyone? Is what I do at work worth the time spent?
The answer was no.
I finally saw myself as a cog in a gigantic machine.
(To add insult to injury, a few years later, my father was diagnosed with something horrible. I will not go into the details here, but it doesn’t end well for anyone involved. It’s a long goodbye.)
THAT’S ROUGH. HOW DID IT SHAPE YOU?
You look at your situation and the work you do.
Is this the right thing for you to be doing? Should you be spending your time on something else?
I became increasingly frustrated with the organization I was working for. They were screaming out for innovation, but the structural inertia of the organization itself was violently resistant to any kind of change.
I was doing a repetitive desk job. Why was I doing that when there was all this magic happening in the geospatial world swiftly passing me by?
I needed a way out.
MAPSCAPING WAS BORN
I love maps. Other people love maps too, so I started selling maps on the internet—simple, beautiful representations of the landscape.
This was how MapScaping started.
Only to come to a grinding halt rapidly. I had to realize that’s not how things work. There’s no such thing as building something, people turning up in scores, and getting rich quick.
There’s a lot of learning involved and plenty to do around making a product visible and viable.
I had to learn how to sell. I started listening to podcasts in my car. I drove to work while listening to digital marketing, learning how to get people’s attention, what search engine optimization is, and how to create content and market it—all in the hope to sell maps and get away from the geospatial industry.
The more podcasts I listened to, the more I fell in love with the medium. I simply love consuming information this way.
I WONDERED IF THERE WAS A PODCAST FOR GEOSPATIAL STUFF
And there were!
The lightbulb went on. I was so going to do this as part of my digital marketing efforts to sell those beautiful maps on the internet.
I did what everyone does and grew my social media profiles on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. But I found that people were engaging with other content I was posting and not with the maps I was trying to sell.
I was posting about things that interested me: new technologies, beautiful maps, and different ways of visualizing data. People were happy to engage with that.
It suddenly dawned on me. Did I go about things the wrong way…?
Did I make the rookie mistake of creating something and then looking for people to buy it?
My social media following was growing day by day. Perhaps instead of looking for people to buy my stuff, I should be looking for stuff for my people.
I asked my network:
What can I do for you?
How can I make things better for you?
If I made a podcast, would you listen to it?
Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes.
THE MAPSCAPING PODCAST WAS BORN
Here are a few things I didn’t realize when I started the podcast:
I didn’t realize that it takes an hour to edit 10 minutes of audio.
I never considered that no one would listen to the first many episodes, regardless of the blood, sweat, and tears I put into them.
It was difficult to convince people to come on the podcast. I could see so much value in it. Why couldn’t they?
I mean, everyone’s doing it—how difficult can it be?
GO AHEAD. CALL ME NAÏVE.
Despite the initial naivety, I absolutely loved the process.
I was connecting with outstanding people doing exceptional stuff. I was finally inspired in ways I could only dream about. This is by far, one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve done in my professional career. And for the first time, I’m doing work that matters for people that care.
Every week on the show, I introduce listeners to experts, the people doing something remarkable in the geospatial world. My goal is to show listeners the different people involved in this industry—they come from different backgrounds with unique skill sets. They use their skills and understanding in innovative ways.
This is a real opportunity. I hope that I’ve been doing a good job of demonstrating that.
THAT’S IT. THAT’S MY JOURNEY.
And while I still have you with me, I’m going to answer a question I get all the time. People keep asking me,
“What skills should I be learning? What should I be doing and focusing on?”
I can’t point at a particular technology and tell you to learn that because that’s going to be big in the future, and that’s the one I’d focus on.
Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to something a little less obvious to GIS folks.
Let me ask you this question. What did you say the last time somebody asked you what it is you do? Did you look at them with a blank face and say something about maps and the internet?
Probably. That’s what I do. I do it a lot.
Skill number one is working on your elevator pitch. How do you add value? Get good at explaining that.
In fact, have several pitches perfected. Pull up a new one, depending on who you’re talking to, because you may need to change the message, so they get it.
For me, communication is the be-all and end-all. Technical understanding is baked into our education. It’s a given. We need to get good at communicating the value we bring to whoever we’re working for or with.
I don’t think we’re good at that. There’s much work we still need to do.
Arthur C. Clarke once famously said,
“ANY SUFFICIENTLY SOPHISTICATED TECHNOLOGY IS INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC.”
The geospatial industry, the technology we work with daily, is sufficiently sophisticated. To many people, it appears to be magical.
Magic is amazing. It’s exciting. It’s unclear how it works. You can surprise and delight people with it.
It’s unlikely that people will invest time, energy, and resources in something magical—something they don’t understand.
How do we communicate what it is we’re doing? The value we bring?
How do we explain to people we can make things better by making better things?
Work on your communication. It’s a universal skill. It applies to any field you end up in the future. Not just in the geospatial industry, not even in a particular silo in geospatial, but across all sectors.
That’s your #1 vital skill to have. The ROI on your efforts will be measurable—it’s no fluff, and it’s not something that “should work” because people say so.
You’ll end up in the right places, doing the things you want to be doing, and continue to make things better.