Andrea Sward: “Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from doing something you really want to do”

Andrea Sward
Andrea Sward
I am a geospatial analyst with nearly three years of professional GIS experience. Originally from Canada, the search for adventure brought me to Wellington, New Zealand a little over a year ago. Things have worked out well, as I managed to quickly find meaningful GIS employment that aligns with my passion for nature, conservation, and the environment. I have been very fortunate to be able to explore many of New Zealand’s beautiful places in my spare time. My partner and I are currently planning to move to Melbourne, Australia in the new year, but we hope to come back and travel to some of the areas we missed!

More about my professional background can be found on my LinkedIn account.

Q: You are geohipster on Instagram. This is awesome. What prompted you to pick that handle?

A: It can be quite difficult to pick an instagram handle! The name geohipster emerged because while I consider myself a geography geek (geogeek), I’d like to think I also have a few cool/quirky hobbies and interests that make me less of the stereotypical “geek” and more of a “hipster”. GIS does seem to work its way into my hobbies though. For example, I’ve started getting into brewing beer and making metal jewelry and inspiration is often drawn from geography, nature, and GIS.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I was a geography major at the University of Toronto and discovered GIS towards the end of my degree. Starting off in GIS can be quite intense, there is a lot to know! My first introductory course was challenging but opened my eyes to a whole new discipline. After graduating, I took a postgraduate program in GIS at Algonquin College in Ottawa. This was a great program and allowed me to really immerse myself into all things geospatial. It provided a good foundation to start into my career. A lot of the time I am learning things on the job. GIS is a changing and growing industry, there is always more to know!

Q: You are a Canadian who lives in New Zealand, about to move to Melbourne, Australia. What inspired you to move down under?

A: I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind to travel to New Zealand and Australia for several years but struggled to find the right timing. After finishing school, paying off my student loans, and gaining some work experience, I had a bit of a crossroads moment of deciding whether to settle where I am, or try something new. So I wrapped up my last contract at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I packed a bag, sold my furniture, and bought a one way ticket to New Zealand. I thought, worst case scenario, I don’t find any work and just have a really nice holiday. After a week of being in Wellington, I had a contract to work at the Department of Conservation. I have now been working there almost 15 months.

It was just one of those moments that anyone could have. I decided I wanted to do something, and I gave it a go.

Soon after moving to New Zealand, I met my partner. He has a job opportunity in Melbourne starting in the new year and we’ve decided to make the move. I will miss Wellington and my colleagues and friends, but I must admit, the same sense of adventure that brought me to New Zealand is starting to bubble up again as I get ready for the next move. I have been told wonderful things about Melbourne and the GIS community there. I’m really looking forward to getting involved and meeting new geogeeks and geohipsters!

Q: Was it easy to find a GIS job in New Zealand? What is the GIS scene like there?

A: There is a really strong community of geospatial professionals in Wellington and around New Zealand. For me, it was easy to find a job but perhaps I got a bit lucky being at the right place at the right time. I’ve enjoyed being part of two networks in Wellington — the Emerging Geospatial Professionals group, and the Women in Spatial group. These groups meet up every so often for a guest presentation along with drinks, nibbles, and general chatting. This is a great way to meet people outside of your organization and there is often discussions around current job vacancies. People are often very passionate about their work and I find that inspiring.

I’ve found the geospatial industry in New Zealand to be quite progressive. There is a lot more openness to collaboration between organizations and a strong desire to get things done. An example of a strong collaboration can be seen in New Zealand’s earthquake preparations. We are sitting on a lot of active faultlines that cause a lot of earthquakes. Often these are just little wobbles, but there have been a few major shakes recently. There was a lot learned from the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, and again more recently in Kaikoura in November. There is a need for a strong geospatial plan for national emergencies such as these. Up-to-date national datasets must be readily available offline, as well as a GIS action plan for possible future earthquakes.

Q: Tell us about your current job — what you do, what technologies you use, what cool projects you work on.

A: I am a geospatial analyst at the Department of Conservation (DOC). The department has a GIS team of around 30 people spread across the country that provide geospatial support to the rest of the organization and its partners. There is a variety of work we do, which can keep things interesting! A lot of my work is generally for published projects, such as information panels, brochures, wall maps, and public reports such as the Conservation Management Strategies. I have a love for cartography and take great pride putting together a polished map.

New Zealand has a big problem with invasive species like possums, stoats, and rats preying on the native bird population. There are also a lot of species of weeds sprawling over the landscape. Much of DOC’s work is focused on pest eradication and we provide geospatial support for this. With the recent announcement by the government to have New Zealand predator-free by 2050, we have a new spring in our steps to keep track of eradication activities around the country.

In terms of technology and software, we primarily use Esri software for our work, Skype for team chatting (it’s very helpful to have team support at your fingertips), and Garmin GPS units out in the field.

Q: What’s a hip thing to do in New Zealand? Cycling? Skiing? Deconstructed coffee?

A: There is so much to do and see in New Zealand! Skiing and cycling are certainly popular, as well as going on a tramp (hike). I’m personally a big fan of some of the geothermal areas in New Zealand, that means soaking in hot springs! There are also quite a few white water rafting spots around the country that can be a lot of fun.

Wearing shorts in any weather is also the hip thing to do, as well as walking around barefoot! People here are just doing their own thing, and I really respect that. I think the culture in New Zealand is pretty relaxed and has also helped me to relax a little too. And I must say, the coffee here is out of this world, I’m not sure I can go back to drinking the North American stuff…

Q: Are you insulted by maps that omit New Zealand? Why / why not?

A: Ha ha, oh dear, poor New Zealand! I wouldn’t say it’s insulting but I would perhaps question the quality of the map. Sometimes New Zealand appears twice on a map, so maybe it all evens out.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: I can only compare my experience in New Zealand to the one I had in Canada, but I must say how impressed I am with the geospatial industry here. I think there is a lot of good stuff going on and other organizations in other countries could perhaps look to New Zealand as a model.

In terms of any personal “wisdom”, I would just encourage people to branch out a little and not be afraid to try new things! Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from taking a risk and doing something you really want to do.