Geospatial analysis and making information beautiful with Helen McKenzie

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Geographic information systems. There, I've lost a few of you already, but you're missing out because GIS is more than about where things are, but why they're there, and quite a few of those reasons are around why people do people things. Helen McKenzie is a cartographer, data visualiser, and geospatial advocate who is passionate about finding meaning in complex data and making information beautiful. We speak about Helen's love of maps and how we can use geospatial analysis to elegantly give us more meaning to the way we live in the world around us and keep our societies ticking away.

About Helen McKenzie

Helen McKenzie is a Geospatial Advocate which means her job is to get people excited about all things geospatial! She has been working in the geospatial industry for around 10 years and has recently made the move from consultancy to technical marketing, whether that’s through running live workshops or writing blogs about using GIS to choose the best venue for the Eurovision Song Contest.

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  • [00:01:32] How Helen found her way to geography and GIS.
  • [00:05:04] Helen's dissertation combining Jane Austen and GIS.
  • [00:08:57] What does work in geospatial sciences look like?
  • [00:12:04] The depth of detail in understanding our communities.
  • [00:15:19] Michele talks about warm data again because warm data is cool.
  • [00:17:06] GIS is about engagement with the data and making those connections.
  • [00:21:00] Becoming a geospatial advocate.
  • [00:27:20] Understanding from geospatial data and its value to businesses.
  • [00:29:25] The cost and factors involved in opening a new store branch.
  • [00:32:29] Michele has too many bubble tea shops nearby. Her local area could have benefitted from some geospatial data.
  • [00:34:14] What does a geospatial advocate do?
  • [00:39:55] Finding your audience.
  • [00:41:46] What Helen doesn't like about her work.
  • [00:42:48] The challenges of public speaking.
  • [00:48:03] What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do, and what advice should they ignore?
  • [00:51:26] Find out more about Helen and her work.
Michele Ong

Geographic information systems. There, I've lost a few of you already, but you're missing out because GIS is more than about where things are, but why they're there, and quite a few of those reasons are around why people do people things. Helen McKenzie is a cartographer, data visualiser, and geospatial advocate who is passionate about finding meaning in complex data and making information beautiful.

Join us as we speak about Helen's love of maps and how we can use geospatial analysis to elegantly give us more meaning to the way we live in the world around us and keep our societies ticking away.

I'm Michele Ong and this is STEAM Powered.

So, good morning Helen. Thank you so much for joining me today on STEAM Powered. It is so wonderful to be speaking with you today, all about what you're doing in cartography and GI- GIS.

Helen McKenzie

Cool. Thanks so much, Michele. I'm so pleased to be here. Yeah, it's, it's bright and, well, maybe not bright, but it's early over here in London, in the UK. But yeah, so excited to be here. Thank you for making the time to speak to me.

Michele Ong

Oh, and thank you for speaking with me. Like I was just very happy to be nerding out all about what you do.

Helen McKenzie

Oh, definitely. I love, I love to get the nerds together and just chat with these things.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. So, you know, getting straight into things like, what drew you to geography in the beginning?

How Helen found her way to geography and GIS.

Helen McKenzie

Do you know, it's quite interesting I think because I actually, when I was younger, I really wanted to be a writer. I really wanted to be a novelist. And I would like, this is going back to when I was like seven or eight, which is a long time ago now, and I would spend all my time planning out stories and planning out novels.

But before I got very far, I would always end up drawing these maps to these like fantasy lands. And I think that's where it started. But then fast forward about 15 years to when I was going to university. I went to university in 2009, if I remember rightly, which is back when there was a really big global recession.

And I chose to do geography at uni just because I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life. I'd sort of given up the idea of being a famous novelist. I wasn't gonna be the next JK Rowling. So I chose geography because it just seemed so multidisciplinary and there were so many different avenues you can go down.

And that's definitely true because all my friends from university are in so many weird and wonderful walks of life. So I chose geography just to keep my options open. And actually my first lecture at university was in GIS, Geographic Information Systems, and I absolutely loved it. It just, it really, it really spoke to me, and I also loved that it was a really, almost like a trade, it was a vocational practical skill. And because I was going to university during the recession, I really wanted to come out with something that would help me, like a proper, proper skill, not just academic tool set, but a proper technical skill that I could use to really build a career on. So I was just choosing sort of all throughout university in- in the UK you take a really broad subject like geography and then you pick options within that and I was always choosing the GIS and more technical modules, like statistics and yeah, absolutely loved it.

And then out of uni I stayed on to do a Masters actually, in- that really specialised in GIS, and then, yeah, just found my way in that way.

Michele Ong

That's amazing. So part of your Masters was actually in cartography. So is cartography just kind of bundled with GIS or is it also a separate specialisation that people will choose to stream into?

Helen McKenzie

I think it used to be much more of its own specialisation and I think it definitely can still be its own specialisation. I actually used to work for a company, a transport company that had its own, sort of, design arm, and they were really heavy in cartography, particularly in the, sort of, wayfinding space. So when you're walking around a city and seeing those really beautiful maps, they were very much in that space. So there definitely is a world for especially cartographers. So people designing maps and making maps are the, sort of, outputs.

But the sort of road that I went down was GIS, which is a much more data engineering route where cartography was kind of, I wouldn't say an afterthought, but it was kind of a, you need to think about data visualisation. You, you can't just go and do all the analysis and do- create all this great data because then you're not sticking the landing. You need to, you need to be thinking about how you communicate this.

So I think in today's world of mapping, there's definitely a much bigger world that is around the analytical space, but I definitely see data visualisation being something that's much, much bigger, especially as GIS and data science and data analysis sort of come together a lot more. So there's definitely a big space still for people designing maps for sure.

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. And it, it's funny because I was looking up your LinkedIn and

Helen's dissertation combining Jane Austen and GIS.

Michele Ong

you mentioned that your dissertation was on using GIS to analyse and visualise the fictional landscape of Austen's books in Bath and how these been transferred to its material and remembered landscapes.

That's a very specific topic-

Helen McKenzie

I know.

Michele Ong

with you mentioning about how you wanted to draw these maps for your books before you even got to writing the books. So like, this is so neat, but how did you come with that topic?

Helen McKenzie

That's a really good question. I, yeah, it's really, it's very specific and very niche. But I remember when we were at university they were saying the more specific, the more niche you can make your dissertation, the easier it will be. So in the UK we have a 10,000 word limit for a dissertation, and actually quite a small chunk of that is to do with your own analysis and work. The majority of it is, sort of, introduction, literature review, all of talking about other people's work. So you actually get quite a small space to do your own work. And I, uh, I will admit I've always been a Jane Austen fan, so that's always been something that's interested me.

And actually, one of the modules I took at university that wasn't about GIS or data was a module called, I can't remember what it was called, but it was all about English landscape and how landscape in England has changed over time and how it's been like influenced by foreign cultures and things like that, and I found it really, really interesting. And so actually when it came to thinking about dissertation, bringing those two quite different sides of my degree together, the one that was very, sort of like, theoretical and almost philosophical combined with hard technical GIS skills that I was learning, really appealed to me and felt like a really great way to, sort of, bring everything I'd learned together.

It was super, it was super interesting to do actually.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. Do you still have the visualisations?

Helen McKenzie

I think I do, but I can't imagine they're very good. I probably do somewhere. Do you know, I actually, the other day I was speaking to someone, like giving them advice on one of their visualisations and they were saying like, oh, I feel like I've just got so far to go. I've got so much to learn. And so it inspired me to go and look and dig out like the first ever piece of GIS work I did.

And, oh my God, is it the worst thing I've ever seen in my life?

Michele Ong

Oh my goodness, yeah.

Helen McKenzie

I dunno what I was, uh, oh my God. We've all got to come from somewhere. It's all about the journey.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. It's about the journey and I mean, with the work that you did for your dissertation, you got a First out of it, so that's something.

Helen McKenzie

Oh wow, you really have been on my LinkedIn. I can't believe I put that on my LinkedIn. What a brag.

Michele Ong

No, no, no, no. That's good. This is amazing information.

Helen McKenzie

I think I just wanted to prove like if you want to do a GIS dissertation about Jane Austen, like it can be done. It can be done well.

Michele Ong

And you know, I think that's like, as you said, as long as you can get super specific, like this is what's interesting, right?

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, absolutely. And there were people who were doing, not necessarily related to GIS, but there were people who were doing dissertations about Harry Potter. There was someone doing a dissertation about the Eurovision song contest, like people found, really, and that's what's great about geography as a discipline is it's so broad that you can really find a way to go after your own interests within that field.

It's not all sort of looking at rock formations or examining population pyramids, as interesting as those things are.

Michele Ong

Yes, exactly. And you know, we'll get to this later because you've also written some very cool blog posts about various topics that sort of like, it feels like you're just kind of sitting there doing something else and then it just pops into your head and you go, actually let's dig into this rabbit hole. But, yeah, very interesting. And I wanna talk about that later too.

Helen McKenzie

Okay, great.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So, you know, um, losing my train of thought now.

Helen McKenzie

This is what happens. I mentioned Eurovision, and that's all anyone wants to talk about.

What does work in geospatial sciences look like?

Michele Ong

Exactly. It's just one of those things. So you know, when people outside GIS and Geospatial Sciences think about the space, it kind of leans towards, you know, things like ecological, urban surveying and mapping. But what does that work actually entail in terms of what you've done?

Helen McKenzie

That's a really good question. So I've been really lucky to have been able to work in quite a lot of different fields, and you are completely right, that is what people tend to think about when they think about GIS, if, if they do, I don't if people- really keeps people awake at night like it does with me.

But, um, yeah, that's, that's absolutely true. I think a lot of, particularly students who I speak to are really interested in that side of things, potentially because they've gone into a physical geography degree. So I don't know how this works internationally, but in the UK we kind of split geography into human and physical geography.

One is the sort of cultural, demographic, social side. One is the sort of rock formations crawling around through rivers measuring glacier formations, that sort of thing. So I think that's, that's partly the reason a lot of people go into these physical geography degrees and disciplines and GIS is a really natural element of things.

But I, I'm digressing a bit. Back your original question. So I've worked in a bunch of different fields. The first job I had was in flood mapping and hydrology, which is very, sort of, on brand with what you're talking about.

The next was in landscape and urban design, which is something that I think people don't necessarily associate with GIS, but that's something where you need a lot of mapping, you need to know a lot of information around, sort of, population density, the transport network, the physical shape of the world. I then worked in transport, which is something which is, you can't do transport planning without GIS because transport is all about going from one place to another.

So you have to always be thinking about where, uh, and part of that was also a lot of city planning and urban realm design.

At work- so I work for a company called CARTO, who are basically a GIS software data analysis supplier. Our customers, we don't have very many customers, or relatively many customers in the, sort of, ecological space.

Most of our customers are actually in transport and mobility, in retail, so GIS is really important for retail because it's really helpful for you working out where is the best location for your store. It's really important to tie those, sort of, two worlds together and thinking about supply chain. We've got a lot of customers in the CPG market, so Consumer Packaged Goods, trying to work out how they can maximise shelf space, who's living in certain areas so they can tie those things together.

And we've got a lot of telco customers, so a lot of customers who are working with where do I need to put my, sort of, internet infrastructure to make sure I maximise my customer base. So even though with GIS it does, sort of, naturally speak to a ecological audience, it's actually got such, such a broad user base and I think needs to have broader.

I think there's a lot of organisations who aren't using it and could benefit from it hugely.

The depth of detail in understanding our communities.

Michele Ong

It is one of those things where it's- so much of the human element or the social element is a part of GIS and geospatial sciences and the data sciences that all flows around that. As you said, like all the things that come up are about where people are and how they use their space, and how they move around their spaces as well.

And you need to know all of that information. And it's all about the data, and it's all about, you know, 80% location, 20% how it's used.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, exactly. And I think um, we're really lucky now compared to maybe even 10 years ago, because 10 years ago we basically had census data and we could say where people lived and what the characteristics are of those people. But actually there's so much more to decision-making than just residence.

So for example, if you think about somewhere like, I'll just pick London cuz I live here, central London. If you were trying to decide where to put a store or a new bus stop or something like that, thinking about residents would be about 30% of what you need to think about. Because you also need to think about visitors and tourists who make up a huge amount of the London economy.

You need to think about commuters. So that would've been impossible to do 10, 15, 20 years ago, or you might have been able to do it, but it would've been damn expensive. But now we have all this amazing data going through from like mobile devices and social media. That means that we don't only have to think about the people who live in an area, but we can easily work out what's the footfall in an area so we can start to bring all these things together.

And it's just, it's just making things so interesting.

Michele Ong

It is. And you know, just giving some examples like, so on your Instagram you had, you know, maps for, uh, I'll pull it up actually. Might be easier to do it that way. Because I was telling my friend about this because I thought it was hilarious.

Helen McKenzie

Thank you.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So, your map about bus movements and when it gets close to McDonald's branches and how far you are from Nando's, like those sorts of things- it's random but fascinating because it is about where people are and how they, you know, use the space and the way that services and businesses will choose where to place their different branches will depend on not just residential demographics, but physical movement as well.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, exactly. And also like physical infrastructure, like, like you said, where are your bus routes? Where's your transport infrastructure? There's loads more, sort of, information that you might need, like site feasibility aspects, so zoning laws, things like this, there're so many different things that need to feed into these decisions.

And sometimes doing that, looking at all of this in a spatial way is the best way to do it because something, this is very cheesy, but something I always say is spatial is a language we can all speak. Everyone understands a map and it's in that way it's such a great way of bringing together so many different disciplines.

I've worked on loads of different multidisciplinary projects and you might have a, sort of like, landscape architecture team over here, and a transport planning team over here, and a maybe a cycling little team over here, and sometimes those teams can work in isolation and don't really speak to each other.

And often it's the people doing the spatial analysis in the middle, bringing them all together.

Michele talks about warm data again because warm data is cool.

Michele Ong

Exactly. Okay, people who are regular listeners of this podcast will get sick of me kind of banging on about this. Once I was told about warm data, and how you use that in data sciences, that kind of just makes me think of everything in terms of context.

So warm data is about applying context to data based on its relationship to the other aspects of the system that it's a part of. So in your case, it'll be like, yes, we have geography of where things are physically placed, but why are they physically placed there and how are the people relating to the thing that is being placed. And you know, in terms of say residence or usage. Uh, okay, another example that works is your blog post about whether- again, I'm gonna be doing so much editing on this because it didn't occur to me that I'll be making references to actual content on websites.

Helen McKenzie

Don't worry. Cause this is, this is making me sound like I'm really prolific and I'm like all over the place, so I love it.

Michele Ong

Yeah, it is. It's gonna be a bit like that. But your, your post about, where is it? 'Whether people in London experience deprivation based on where they live in the boroughs' and, you know, boundaries. So you know that that's totally a warm data thing because you, you know where people are, you know where the boundaries are.

But the people who are in those boundaries, how does it affect the way they live in the space and the way that local governments and local councils manage the space as well. Like, those are all sorts of things that you have to take in context with all these other factors of the system and not just in isolation of physical location and just the cold straight data.

And you know, that's what's all really amazing about GIS and information management and data science.

GIS is about engagement with the data and making those connections.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, for sure. And I, I often say I, I absolutely love that explanation. I love that concept and I quite often say, if someone looks at your visualisation or looks your analysis and says, oh, I wonder why that's happening, the worst thing you can say is that's just what the data says. I don't know. I just do the data. That's I think the worst thing you should do. You should be, like you say, always engaging with and thinking about the data and drawing the connections. And one of the things that people quite often talk about is, is geography a good discipline to study if you want to get into GIS and geospatial, because there's loads of different routes into it.

Lots of people come in through, sort of, statistics and maths sort of disciplines. Lots of people come in through computer science, and because those disciplines are really, really technical, these people often have much better maybe programming skills or engineering skills, which is fantastic and GIS as a discipline needs all of those skills.

But I definitely think there's a place for geography because when you are studying geography, you are thinking about all those different things and you do have that, sort of, background that means you can look at a map and think, oh, that's probably happening cuz of that. I can dig into that a bit more, maybe I need to bring in this data set, rather than just purely thinking of the data as a series of numbers on a map.

Michele Ong

Yeah, exactly. Cuz it all has a story to tell and there's always a reason for looking into why something looks the way it is a little bit more deeply.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, absolutely. And I always- I think the most rewarding part of my job has always been when you present something to someone and they say, oh, I never would've thought of that or I, I never realised that that could be happening there. But it makes total sense that it does now I'm looking at it on a map, and that's always the most rewarding part of my job for me, because I'm like, yes, I was useful.

Michele Ong

And that's what you want. You want your data visualisations to be able to make people feel that there's so much more value in the data that they're looking at.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, exactly. And I think in a way, compared to other data visualisation, mapping kind of makes that easy because it's such a engaging medium, and in a way it's a very emotive medium because we all have such a emotional tie to specific places, whether it's somewhere we've lived or worked or visited or been on holiday.

So it is something that, I mean, everyone, whenever they open an interactive map, immediately zooms into where they live and, and sees what's happening there. And I think that that really shows how, how engaging they can be and but also how emotional people can be about it. And that means that it's really, compared to something like a bar chart or a pie chart, it's really easy to have that, to connect your work with people and with your audience.

Michele Ong

And you look at the data and you're no longer just part of the statistic. You're actually part of the group. You're a part of the collection or the society that makes that data this particular shape, and you're contributing to it. It, it feels a little bit more interactive and two-way than looking at straight charts.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, a hundred percent. Actually, one of my colleagues, Alex Tanner put this so beautifully the other day. He said, working with data often feels cold, but when it's geospatial data, you feel more connected.

And I thought it was beautiful. And I think maybe he does poetry writing in his spare time. I thought it was amazing.

Michele Ong

Yes. It is beautiful. And there are other people I've spoken to in geography who feel that very same way because they said it, it allows me to connect with the rest of the world. It allows me to feel that I'm part of something bigger, in a very tangible way.

And yeah, it, it's really sweet and lovely.

So, we've kind of established that you are a huge map nerd in the best possible way.

Becoming a geospatial advocate.

Michele Ong

But how, how did you manage to turn that passion into being able to become a geospatial advocate with CARTO?

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, for sure. It's, um, it's quite a strange career path. I think I had a very traditional career path in GIS up to about a year ago. So my role was always, or my job title was always some sort of variation on GIS consultant, which is a really traditional career path to go into in GIS, you are basically someone who works for a company and at that company work on external projects.

So the company I've worked at, for example, we would work for projects, for transport for London or, department for transport, or local councils and things like that. So you're sort of hiring out your services to other companies. So that's a really traditional career path for people to go into in GIS.

And it's something that I always really enjoyed. I really enjoyed the, sort of, variation of that and working on one thing in the morning and then something completely different on the other side of the world in the afternoon. That was always something really interesting to me. But I think I started to want or explore a different side of my career, actually, when the pandemic hit and the UK went into- nose-dived into a recession, as we uh, love to do these days, it's one of our top hobbies. And, and I was quite worried about my job at the time, as I think a lot of people were. The country, loads of companies across the country were, sort of, laying people off or reducing hours or reducing pay.

And I just started thinking, I need to even if my job isn't in danger, I need to a. Have something to do in my evenings and weekends because at the moment I'm just sitting here watching TV all day because I can't go out. And b. I wanted to do something to sort of raise my profile, improve my skills within the geospatial community.

So I started doing a lot more on social media, so Twitter and Instagram. I also started my own website and started doing a blog and just sharing a lot of work and sharing tutorials in those cases. And it's something that I've really, really enjoyed and it's definitely something that opened up a lot of doors for me.

I started getting approached to speak at conferences or maybe do podcasts like this or appear on panels and webinars, which are all things I absolutely love doing because you might be able to tell that I can talk for days. Uh, and eventually, maybe about a year or so later when I, I posted something on LinkedIn, which was all about the geography of different supermarket brands in the UK. They have a really interesting spatial trend in the UK where some have a really sort of rural demographic and some have a really urban demographic, and it's really interesting and I did a post all about that.

And I got contacted by a lady called Flo Brodrick, who is now my boss who said I'm just loving seeing everything that you're putting out on social media and I've been on your website and it's great. Can we have a quick call just to see if there's any opportunities to work together? And she basically said that they were looking for someone in their marketing team. This is at CARTO where I work now, who has a more, sort of, technical background who's basically able to use the CARTO product and the CARTO data to show off the brilliant things it can do, but also who has been in basically the seat of a would be customer and knows a lot more about the industry and knows maybe the pain points people have for the existing software and where people want to go. And that basically everything she said, I was like, yes, yes, yes, I would absolutely love to do that. That sounds completely up my street because I've been doing so much, maybe like I would say, extracurricular work where I was promoting GIS and shouting about how much I loved it, but it wasn't a part of my job.

But I enjoy it so much that I was like, yes, I'll do, I will do that as my job. Absolutely. And then it's almost a year to the date and I'm, I'm still doing it. It's fantastic.

Michele Ong

Yeah, it's amazing and it's so great that just being able to explore that alternate kind of avenue of your work was able to create so many more additional opportunities because you know it, it's just something that you enjoy doing and you can share that and people can see how much you care and how much you want to share.

And, you know, you are really selling the whole GIS is cool thing. And-

Helen McKenzie

GIS is cool. Yeah. Thank you for saying so. It is cool.

Michele Ong

It is cool. And, you know, yeah, when I was reading your stuff earlier, I was laughing at myself cuz I think I'm so nerdy because this is really fascinating and I just keep clicking through reading more and-

Helen McKenzie

Ah, that's so kind of you to say thank you.

Michele Ong

You're welcome. And it, it is true because all of this stuff's about people and maps and the way that humans human and to me, that's awesome. And I don't think anyone who wouldn't think that's awesome because that's why they will click on themselves on the map when they zoom in. So yeah. It, it's cool that these opportunities came up for you because you just decided to put it out there and create all these amazing visualisations.

Helen McKenzie

I feel so lucky, but then I also think it's something that, or I hope these are sort of roles that organisations like CARTO will start to explore more because I think it's so valuable having people who do have that knowledge and insight of what the industry is like and who are able to use the tool in their marketing teams.

Also I feel like I act like a bit of a translator sometimes. So sort of tech speak comes in through like the engineering team or our data science team and I sort of whizz it around in my brain and then put it out in plain English to like to the marketing team or the sales team. And I feel like that's really useful as well.

'Cause that can sometimes be maybe a bit of a disconnect in organisations between people who do speak, I don't know if this is right, who do speak GIS and people who don't speak GIS. I actually did a post for CARTO, a blog post last week that was all about how you can get people who aren't GIS and geospatial experts excited in and interested in GIS because I think as a community we can be very focused on the data and very focused on the tech, and we just, like you say, we just love to geek out about it.

And I think we sometimes forget that not everyone does sadly, but not everyone does.

Michele Ong

So unfortunate and very disappointing, but yeah, absolutely.

Understanding from geospatial data and its value to businesses.

Michele Ong

Because communication is such an important part of all of these things, especially when it is such a massive part of what ends up being our day-to-day because, as we mentioned before, it's the way that supermarkets will design their shelves and place their branches. It's the way that public transport will decide what routes are required and how many buses are required or units are required for a route, and how we get around from place to place. All of these things to do with our landscape, urban, and everywhere else. It's so important to how we function and how we exist and our recreation as well as our business and professional side, like it, it's all so important and we often take for granted all of the work that goes into infrastructure to make it happen.

And that's where all of this data comes in. Like, this is necessary in order for our society to function.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, definitely. But I think there's still people, who, and often decision-makers who aren't necessarily buying into that quite yet. And you definitely, we definitely hear examples of people saying that their company wants to open a new store and their method for doing that is their CEO will like, walk down a high street and say, yeah, this seems like a good spot.

And actually not bring in all that evidence into their decision-making. And it's like, in today's world, particularly the way things are changing so quickly, and so much is happening online rather than in person, I feel like you need that evidence base to be making those decisions. You really do.

Michele Ong

You really, really do. And especially because of the recession and the way the economy is at the moment, you're seeing businesses, you know, start up and fall and fail. And shop houses are filling and emptying very quickly. They're not even finishing what you'd expect would be a term of a lease.

So, all this information, getting all this data and being able to represent it, it in a way that kind of makes you go, actually yes, this makes perfect sense. I understand why this is valuable to know is so important for businesses because it's an expensive enterprise starting a business and starting a branch.

It's not cheap.

The cost and factors involved in opening a new store branch.

Helen McKenzie

Oh, absolutely. I think I heard a statistic, I'm not sure which chain it was. It was a sort of fast food franchise chain, and it cost 'em something like a million dollars to open a new store, which is a huge amount of money. And if I were the person who were, I mean, I can't even picture being the person who had that amount of money, but if I was spending that amount of money, I'd want to be damn sure that I had de-risked everything I could and made every, had every piece of information at my disposal before making that decision.

Michele Ong

Exactly. And just an example when I was traveling just recently, there was a relatively new residential estate that had been built. And apparently this was about a few years ago when there were still just starting to fill out, you know, people starting to build on this estate. And this fairly large independent supermarket chain had opened a branch there, but they didn't last very long because they hadn't really like, it seemed like a good idea, well, this place is new and it doesn't have supermarket. Let's put a supermarket there. But they couldn't survive. They didn't have enough density to support it. There were other larger supermarkets in the area that were servicing all the other residents and nearby, there was no reason for them to go to this particular one.

And it's like, well, if you had some additional data, could that have been avoided? Could you have figured out a better way of doing it? Or targeted your branch to be able to service a different demographic? Like all of these additional bits of information are so important.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, exactly. Because with something like that you'd be wanting to, like you said, looking at how, what the population density is gonna be like in that area, but also, you know, when are people moving in? I think you quite often see, like in London, you often see these huge developments going up and the stores open, but people actually haven't moved in yet.

So you are there with an empty store. You'd also be wanting to think about are those people likely to be drivers or are they likely to prefer walking and cycling? Because if they're drivers, then they might not care if they've got a local store because they're happy to drive elsewhere. And yeah, one of my favourite spatial data sets to work with actually, or type of spatial data set to work with is something called geosegmentation data, which looks at people who live or work in an area based on things like it could be their credit card spend, what they're spending money on, or it could be their social media activity. It could be based on loads of different factors. It sort of scores them against different indexes, and those indexes have a set of characteristics. So my favourite one is there's this data set from a company called Spatial AI, and they have indexes like the hipster index, or yoga advocates, or people who love Asian food.

And you can score residents, based on- if they're a hundred in yoga advocates group, they love yoga and they're doing yoga all the time. And you can use that sort of data to say, oh, people in this area are gonna really like my luxury supermarket with my really high end goods.

Or they might be much more prefer sort of discount supermarket. And you need to really align all of those things and not just think, like you say, there's gonna be some new people living in this area, let's open a supermarket.

Michele has too many bubble tea shops nearby. Her local area could have benefitted from some geospatial data.

Michele Ong

Yep. Oh gosh. I swear that company must have an index called Bubble Tea Lovers, because in my, we don't live very far from the restaurant and cafe strip, and there's a stretch where there's about 10 bubble tea or yogurt bubble tea shops. And so I think we have enough. I'm really sure we do not need one more.

And every time there's an empty shop house, it's like, please don't be another bubble tea shop.

Helen McKenzie

It's like, let's get more bubble tea. Maybe there's just like one person who's just absolutely obsessed and maybe like on a Friday night, rather than going on a pub crawl, they go like a bubble tea crawl and-

Michele Ong

That's exactly what happened. The local community Facebook group, they actually set up a bubble tea crawl and it's like, wow. Like the fact that we have enough that you could legitimately do this is absolutely horrendous, but okay.

Helen McKenzie

That's incredible. Oh my God, I love that.

Michele Ong

Yeah, it, is just one of those things like, I think we need more of these bits of data to help us decide what we're opening on this strip so that we don't have an imbalance in what we've got available to us. We need variety.

Helen McKenzie

I'd love to get a coffee. Is there anywhere I can get a coffee? No, just bubble tea. Sorry.

Michele Ong

It almost started to feel that way. It's like, guys, and four of them are yoghurt bubble tea places, five of them are regular ones, and then you've got ones that do these extra things to try and be special. It's like, no, you're all still bubble tea. Like there's nothing here that distinguishes you for distinct business uniqueness here.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah. God. Yeah. How do you like differentiate in that way?

Michele Ong

I know. Oh gosh. Yeah. This is why data's important, people. Oh gosh.

What does a geospatial advocate do?

Michele Ong

So, as a geospatial advocate, what do you do?

Helen McKenzie

Well, that's such a good question. Because it is a really, really varied role. I'd say no two days are the same and things change up all the time. I'd say my overall sort of job description is- and this is my unofficial job description, that's one I've given myself, is I'm CARTO's hype person, so I'm here to get people hyped about CARTO.

And in particular our sort of target market is people who are data scientists and data analysts that are already quite data literate, and they're sort of moving into bringing geospatial into their tech stack. So my goal is basically to get people to realise why they need geospatial in their lives, uh, which I obviously think we all do.

And there's loads of different ways that I do that. One of the things I look after at CARTO is a lot of our technical content, whether that be creating or curating content for our blog. I also do a lot of sort of longer form content. So I recently wrote an uh, ebook all about spatial indexes, which are sort of, we call it like the next generation of spatial data.

I won't get into it too much 'cause I can talk about them all day, but spatial indexes are basically a way of representing geospatial data that's a bit different. So geospatial data is typically, you put it on a map through a geometry linestring. So it's basically a series of vertex coordinate pairs that describe the shape of a line or a polygon or a point.

And they can be really, really long, they can be thousands of characters long, and that makes them really big to store and quite slow to analyse. But spatial indexes have a really short linestring. It's normally about 10 characters long, which makes 'em really, uh, small to store and so quick to analyse.

So sorry, that was a bit foray into spatial indexes. I knew I'd mentioned them and then just wanted to start talking about them.

Uh, so yes, one of the other things I do is write these ebooks, uh, to sort of generate people's interest in CARTO. I also speak at a lot of events, so just yesterday I was doing a webinar all about the cost of living crisis, but I also go out and speak at physical events. So at CARTO we hold, a couple of times a year, in London and New York, events called the Spatial Data Science Conference, so I'm always really heavily involved in that. But like I sort of mentioned earlier, I feel like I also have this sort of like translating role. I do a lot of work with our sales team to help them sort of sculpt sales pitches or sculpt how they might want to talk to particular people. So there's, there's sort of all sorts that I do.

I create, one of my favourite things as well is I create a lot of demos. So I do a lot of work with CARTO to sort of see what it can do, basically take- our product team are amazing, I swear. So one of the things our team looks after is social media. And what we have to do is put out product announcements and I swear we cannot post enough. Cause they every, we cannot keep up with the speed that our product team are innovating.

It's amazing. But that's one of the things I am responsible for as well as social media is taking these new product updates and doing something cool with them and then putting that out there to show how great they are. So yeah, it's a really, really varied role. And like I said, no two days are the same, which I absolutely love.

And I think my favourite part about my job is how many different parts of my brain I feel that it uses. So I have to be really, really creative. I have to do loads of really good copywriting. I have to get out there on social media. I have to do loads of sort of public speaking, but then I also have to be really numerate, I have to have good coding skills, I have to- the other day I was doing trigonometry, which I was trying to remember how I did that at school. And so I just love that it sort of keeps all sides of my brain sort of whirring around and I think, that's something that working in geospatial in general does, and also in data analysis and data visualisation does as well.

There's so many different skills that I think people don't always associate like STEMM careers with being creative, but they absolutely are, and I think that's something I love about it.

Michele Ong

Yes. And part of your creativity is in the fact that you are a science communicator in this space. But the creativity is also in the fact that you are creating these visualisations, you're creating these demos and using that to illustrate something that's super tangible that other people can actually understand and get stuff out of.

So yeah, it's very cool that you do get to use all these different aspects of your brain, all your different skillsets that you've been passionate about ever since you were young, to be able to create all of these things for the people. It's cool.

Helen McKenzie

Ah, thank you. Yeah, it's, um, I sometimes do pinch myself that I've managed to fall into this career, but I'm so, so grateful that I have, and I also think it's, you know, so many people who work in this industry are exactly the same. It's- it's great to be part of, it's such a community industry, the geospatial one.

There's, especially if you go on something like Twitter, there's just so many people who you just have to say like, oh, I'm struggling with this, and about 20 people will give you the solution. And it is, you don't know which to pick. It's, it's a really great community to be part of. Everyone has this real passion and I think it's something that to, to sort of not succeed in, but to sort of maybe to succeed in, you do have to have an element of passion to it because you spend, like I was mentioning earlier about having to communicate with people who don't necessarily get it.

That is an awfully big part of the job. And for most people working with geospatial, that will be a big part of your job. And sometimes you can feel a little bit, like you're hitting your head against a wall, so being able to continuously have that passion I think is really helpful for that.

Finding your audience.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. So yeah, speaking on the whole audience thing, so a lot of the stuff is advocacy, but because a lot of people don't know this is something that they need, how do you attract these clients? Because if they don't know it's something they want, why would they even approach a business like CARTO for this thing that they didn't think they needed?

Helen McKenzie

That's such a great question. We do get some people who approach us who know it's something they want and they are fantastic. But yeah, like you say, a lot of people don't. And I think the way we sort of tackle that is focus on verticals like transport or logistics or retail or things like that, but we also really focus on use cases and benefits for what things like CARTO can be useful.

I think it's really important to sort of speak about problems that businesses know they have. Like for example, yesterday when we were talking about the cost of living, you know, businesses know that the cost of living is gonna be a challenge for them, and they don't necessarily think that that's gonna have a spatial element for them.

They maybe think, you know, oh, in, in the USA we know the cost of living's gonna be a problem, but they don't necessarily think, but in this area it's gonna be less of a problem than in this area, which it absolutely does have a spatial element. So I think it's identifying those areas where businesses know they're gonna have a strategic challenge or opportunity in the future.

And then showing why geospatial is absolutely a crucial element of that.

Michele Ong

It's one of those businesses where it is difficult because you can't do the whole, if you build it, they will come kind of thing. So there's a lot of actively going out to find the business and find the clients and tell the clients, this is probably something that you will need because of these reasons.

Yeah. That's tough. That's a hard one.

Helen McKenzie

Mm mm.

What Helen doesn't like about her work.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So, all right. We've heard what you love about you work. What is something that you don't like about your work?

Helen McKenzie

Oh, that's a really good question. So when I was working in consulting, absolutely the least favourite part of my job was doing time sheets, which is where you have to account for basically every 15 minutes of your time, you have to account for what you spent working on, and you'll have a percentage of your time that has to be spent on billable work, and that's the most important target to your company.

And when I, I would be working on something like 40 different projects a week. So filling out my time sheet would take a couple of hours every week, which was time I couldn't spend doing billable hours. So it was, um, that was a really big challenge working in consultancy 'cause it was just relentless.

But that's not necessarily related to geospatial. Um, that's just a more general having to have a job problem. Um-

Michele Ong

It's a common hate.

The challenges of public speaking.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah. That's really tough about my current job right now because there is so much that I love about it. I, maybe it's- so I have to do a lot of public speaking and it's something that I've come to quite enjoy.

But there's always the like, the night before when I'll be stressing about it, and then about half hour before I have to go on that, I'll be stressing about it. And even if it's like I know my talk back to front and I'm really confident and I know that it's something that the audience gonna be really interested in, and I know that like I've done a million of these before and they've always gone well. I think public speaking is something that, for a lot of people, especially someone like me, I'm quite a, I'm quite a worrier. I definitely have imposter syndrome in a big way, it's something that puts you, you're putting yourself out there in such a vulnerable way that it's something that always will stress me out and it's, I still absolutely love doing it, and the feeling when you get off the stage is fantastic, but it's always gonna be something that stresses me out a little bit, always.

I'm never gonna be one of those people who's like completely, you know, there's people who get up on stage and they're just like, loving life. I definitely feel like I am much better at public speaking than I used to be, and I do enjoy it, but it's always gonna be a bit stressful, you know?

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. Definitely a little bit stressful.

Is public speaking something that you had done? Like, not obviously extremely comfortably, but is it something that you'd done before you started this sort of work? Or is it something that you had to learn and cultivate?

Helen McKenzie

Um, I'd done, no, no, I'd done a decent amount, but before I started this job for a sort of year and a half, we were in the pandemic. So all events were online, which is a very different kind of challenge. It's not as nerve wracking in terms of seeing lots of faces in front of you, but it's- I'd say it's not as nerve wracking before, but it's much harder when you are doing it because you have no idea if anyone's even there, if people are reacting.

Whereas when you are doing it in person, you can at least see like, oh, people are responding or they look a bit bored, they're all on my phone. I've gotta switch something up. So I do, I have done quite a lot of it online and I've done a few conferences in person beforehand. But it's definitely something that has ramped up a lot with this job.

But I'm really glad that it's a big part of my job because I think it's also making me a much more confident person in general. You know, if I, if I'm brave enough to go up and speak in front of like 500 people, then I can be brave enough to, you know, do things in my day-to-day life.

Michele Ong

Yeah. It is a thing though, like it, it's one of the skills that is very useful to have, even if you don't really need it, because that way when you do have to do it, it's not going to be as debilitating.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah, exactly. The way I try and think about it now is when I get all sort of clammy beforehand, I try and say like, look, it's adrenaline. You're not necessarily scared because this is gonna be fine, you've done this a thousand times. It's adrenaline. And I also have like lots of little things I do to try and make, make it easier.

Like, I always go and check out the room I was speaking in beforehand, so I, you don't come out into the room and be like, oh, this is a complete surprise. I always have like a banana or a cereal bar half an hour before, so I know I'm not gonna get lightheaded. Always bring a drink of water with me because you never know if there'll be water there.

And everyone always gets a dry throat when they're speaking. So I always do lots of like little things just to make sure that I'm gonna be as comfortable as possible, make it as easy for myself as possible. But I also think that like with public speaking, like 90% of the battle is sounding like you are interested in what you're talking about, and if you can do that, then the audience is gonna be with you.

Michele Ong

Yeah. Because if they're not engaging, like you've probably had lecturers at university who are like that, it's like, I don't think you really care about this presentation at all in the slightest.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah. I know you want to get off and do your research and you don't want to talk to this group of 200 hungover students about this, but who can blame them.

Michele Ong

I know exactly. I mean, if they wanna go do their research, the teaching, it's really hard.

Helen McKenzie

That's so true.

Michele Ong

It is just one of those things, you get up there, you get more comfortable with it as you practice, and it's so- people joke about being prepared, but it really is making sure that you're as comfortable as possible so that you really don't have as many reasons to have issues and anxiety about having to do it.

Helen McKenzie

Definitely. And I also like having done so many like speaking at conferences and things like that now, I definitely am much better appreciating that there are gonna be things that go wrong, and that's not always your fault. In fact, quite often it's not your fault, and you just have to accept that that's part of live events and you have to roll with it.

I've been at conferences where I can't see my slides. I've been at conferences where I can't hear myself. I've done a lot, and you just, you get to a point where you're like, you just have to be, take a zen approach to it.

Michele Ong

Yes, definitely have to roll with it and hope for the best.

Helen McKenzie

Absolutely.

Michele Ong

Okay. So yeah, it's probably a good time to kind of wind up with all of this amazing conversation.

What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do, and what advice should they ignore?

Michele Ong

So lastly, what advice would you give someone who'd like to do what to do, and what advice should they ignore?

Helen McKenzie

Oh, that's a great question. The advice I would give someone is start putting yourself out there. Don't ever think that you can't put yourself out there. I think lots of people, particularly- like social media's the easiest way to start sharing your work, sharing tutorials. I think lots of people get quite nervous about putting stuff on social media because it feels much more permanent than it is.

Normally with social media you post something and, you know, people see it for maybe an hour and then it's gone. And I think people should take some comfort in that and not get so stressed about whether they should put something up or not. I think they should just- people should just go for it. Just start. That's my advice. Just, just start building. Start building a brand, start building your profile. It's a great space for networking as well. So yeah, virtual profiles and brands are great.

What advice should people ignore? That's a really good one. I think advice I hear a lot about working in geospatial, GIS, data more widely is the importance of being able to code.

And I think that is a really, really helpful skill and for some specialisations it's absolutely necessary. But I also would say that no code and low-code tools are becoming so much more prolific. So at CARTO we actually just launched a no-code auto spatial analysis automation tools called workflows.

We launched it in beta just last- week before last. And these tools, it's not just CARTO doing this, it's part of a much wider trend. So I think the advice people should ignore is if you can't code, don't go into data analysis. I would say ignore that.

I've never been a huge coder. I've always sort of dabbled in bits and bobs. I do a lot of SQL, but apart from that, like my Python's pretty rubbish, my R's medium, my javascript is not worth talking about, and my HTML's okay. So I would say yeah, don't feel like you absolutely have to code. It's great to, I would say, know what all the different languages do and know what they're all for. And by all means, yes, do, do learn coding, but if that's not something you want to do or if it's something that you can't get your brain around, don't let that put you off because there are plenty of avenues into spatial analysis without having to be a world expert in Python.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. Because as you said before, like so many people enter this space from so many other fields and walks of life, so it, it's about the passion more than it is about having that technical understanding and knowledge because yeah, being multidisc as a field, there's nothing that limits you in being able to contribute in some way.

Helen McKenzie

Yeah. Absolutely. And I always say like it's not about what you know, it's about you knowing what questions to ask.

It's you knowing how to Google the problem that you have to be able to solve it.

Michele Ong

Exactly. If you can Google, you can figure something out. It's okay.

Very cool. Okay, well that was absolutely amazing. So thank you so much Helen for speaking with me today on STEAM Powered. It has been absolutely wonderful hearing about your journey and how you got to be doing what you love doing, advocating for how amazing GIS is.

Helen McKenzie

Well thank you so much, Michele. I've had so much fun speaking to you.

Michele Ong

Oh yes, it's been so much fun. So really enjoyed it.

Find out more about Helen and her work.

Michele Ong

So if people want to know more about what you do, where can they go?

Helen McKenzie

So you can find me on Twitter and Instagram if you search for helenmakesmaps. Uh, or you can find me on LinkedIn, Helen McKenzie. I'm the ginger one with all the maps on my profile, and also if you go over to CARTO.com and look on our blog, a lot of the posts there will be from me as well. So do give that a look.

Michele Ong

Amazing. And I'll put all those links in the show notes as well. So yeah, thank you again so much, Helen. This has been absolutely fantastic and I hope you have an amazing rest of your day.

Helen McKenzie

Thank you so much. See you, Michele.

Michele Ong

See you.

If you enjoyed this conversation, please let me know. Subscribe to this show, leave us a rating and share this with your geeky or geek-curious friends. You can also support STEAM Powered on Patreon under steampoweredshow the link for which also be in the show notes. Thanks for tuning in, and we'll see you next time.

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