Rosemary Wardley: “Coding is foundational knowledge that can help you in any career”

Rosemary Wardley is a Cartographer at National Geographic where she works on a variety of custom print and digital products. Outside of work, Rosemary stays active in the larger geo community through her position on the Board of NACIS and through the many geospatial meetups that take place in Washington D.C. Whenever possible she likes to combine her love of maps with her other passions, LGBTQ rights, empowering women & girls, sports, and of course, her home state of Rhode Island!

Working as a senior cartographer at National Geographic sounds like it could be a mapmaker’s dream job. Was it yours, or did you navigate there by chance, or perhaps via a scenic route on the back roads and bike paths of your geo-journey? How is it being surrounded every day by people who live and breathe geography?

Working for National Geographic was, and is, my dream job. Back in college when people learned I was a geography major they would usually ask me if I was going to teach (seemingly the only career people thought geographers could have at the time) but in response I would always say “I’m going to work at National Geographic”. That always seemed to appease people, but it wasn’t something I honestly thought would happen. At the time I wasn’t even sure how many geographers worked at National Geographic and I wasn’t specializing in cartography in my studies.

I arrived at National Geographic the summer after I graduated from college as a Geography Intern in the Education Division. NatGeo has always been at the forefront of supporting Geography Education in the United States, through teacher training, classroom resources, and internships. My summer at NatGeo was also my first exposure to the Maps Division. After working elsewhere for a year (editing Flood Insurance Rate maps for FEMA) I knew I wanted to get back to National Geographic and I was fortunate to be hired as part of the GIS team to work on our Cartographic Databases. In the decade plus that I’ve worked here my position has grown and expanded and I now focus on production cartography rather than GIS database analysis. Working here in the Maps, Graphics, and Art Division is amazing and allows me to learn from masters of their craft day in, day out. And National Geographic as a whole is such an inspiring place full of geographers, explorers, photographers, and driven people trying to change the world!

Since geography is where it’s at, you’re hip by default. But I’ll ask anyway: are you a geohip/sister? Are you post-labels? I’m also intrigued by your mention of participation in “esoteric sports”. I vaguely imagine a composite of meditation, ultimate frisbee, and cycling…please enlighten me.

Labels are an interesting thing. They can be positive and something that bonds people together, or on the flip-side, they can be divisive when applied to groups without their consent. That being said, when I choose my own labels I would most definitely consider myself a geohipster and DEFINITELY a geosister! I only recently heard of that phrase (I believe you coined it!) and I think it’s a great way to unite the women of our field! I have gotten much more involved in supporting my fellow women in geography over the last few years, not because I’ve felt injustice myself in my career, but because I’ve come to recognize how much institutionalized inequality there is. I strongly believe in empowering and supporting minorities in geography and if proclaiming I am a geosister loud and proud can help in some small way, then that is an easy thing to do!

My love of esoteric sports is possibly a bit of an exaggeration! I played rugby for 15 years, which is a rather unknown sport in the US, but fairly popular worldwide! It is another great connector, like geography, and if you find a rugby player anywhere in the world you immediately have a common bond! I have always loved learning about sports that are unique to certain places, such as hurling in Ireland or Aussie Rules Football in Australia. Basically I like to stay fit by playing games, and the crazier the game the better I guess!

The Prejudice and Pride map you worked on for Nat Geo is stunning. Who inspired it and what’s the story behind making it? Are there other projects you’re proud of?

The Prejudice and Pride map was directly inspired by a presentation that the data author, Jeff Ferzoco, did at NACIS 2018. Jeff has created this amazing interactive map, OutgoingNYC, detailing the location of queer nightlife in New York city over the past century. His passion for this topic was infectious and both myself and my colleague, Riley Champine, were inspired after his talk and approached him about presenting this data in the magazine. Jeff was a joy to work with and was extremely supportive in our cartographic interpretation of his data and working with us to make it the best visualization it could be. This project was personally important to me as a lesbian since it helped me to learn more about my community and it was extremely rewarding to share this history with a larger audience. I am proud of many other projects I’ve worked on, but there isn’t one that is quite as personal to me or that I am quite as proud of 🙂

What needs to change for there to be gender and racial equality and equity in the geospatial realm?

I think the first step is recognizing that there are problems in gender and racial equality and having a frank discussion on how these can be addressed. There are great strides being made with the creation of groups such as Women In Geospatial and the way that social media can connect and support people across the globe. I believe that the root of the issue comes down to who has exposure to the geospatial field early on in their education and the support to pursue further studies in it. Locally I try to work with school groups here in D.C. to teach them about geography and the opportunities it can provide, and professionally I work to empower and highlight the amazing work done by my fellow female and minority colleagues.

How’d you get involved with NACIS and Maptime? Tell me some stories — your contributions and the fun, surprising, rewarding, confusing, or unexpected stuff that has happened.

I attended my first NACIS Annual Conference in 2010 and I have been an enthusiastic attendee ever since. The atmosphere of NACIS is pretty unique, I immediately felt welcomed by the more seasoned members and was enamored to be surrounded by so many map and geography lovers who were also so easy to talk to and share their expertise. As I realized how unique NACIS was, I felt the urge to get involved further, which led to my work helping to organize Practical Cartography Day and then my position on the Board. I highly encourage anyone interested to attend a NACIS conference to experience #NACISisNicest for yourself!

Maptime was founded in San Francisco in 2013 out of a desire to teach and learn web mapping technologies in an open and collaborative space. I heard Lyzi Diamond speak about it at a FOSS4G conference the next year and volunteered with a few other folks to start a D.C. chapter. We had a super successful chapter for a couple of years as D.C is a bit of a hot-bed for folks in the geospatial community. But honestly, I was most surprised at the amount of new folks who would attend each month from a variety of backgrounds and the thirst for knowledge there is out there for learning about maps! I had to step back from organizing duties with Maptime as I started Grad School, but the spirit of communal learning and knowledge sharing continues virtually via Slack Channels like the Spatial Community and Women in Geospatial.

I could relate to your blog post about feeling like an intermediate of many and master of none after completing a master’s degree in cartography (aka an intermediate’s degree). There are so many web/digital mapping tools; how do you prioritize and choose what to learn and use? Which do you use most at work and want to learn more of?

One of the biggest reasons that I decided to pursue my Master’s Degree in Cartography was because I was finding it difficult to keep up with and learn the ever-expanding list of web mapping tools on my own. Some people are great self-learners and can take a tutorial online and run with it, but I found out that I am not that person! As I mentioned in my blog post, the program at Wisconsin-Madison worked for me because it did a good job at giving an overview of the many tools available, but more importantly they taught the structure of web mapping and how each coding language and library works together. It’s really up to each person to figure out which tools work best for them and to create their own personal stack, as they say. Due to my cartographic background I tend to focus more on the design oriented languages like CSS, and D3, with a heavy emphasis on Python for data processing and wrangling!

On a related note: do you have advice for students, grads, and any aspiring cartographers and geospatialists?

My number one advice for anyone I meet in the geospatial field is to learn some basic programming (whichever language seems most relevant to your interests). I took the requisite coding course for ArcGIS in undergrad but quickly determined it was not for me and then avoided it like the plague. But now, a decade later, I have come to realize that even just having a rudimentary understanding of a couple of coding languages is like learning how to write a compelling essay, it’s foundational knowledge that can help you in any career.

You’ve done a lot of real-life, armchair, and desk-chair adventuring (do you have a standing desk?). Has mapmaking changed your perspective of otherwise unknown places? Has travel influenced the way you feel about home, and about cartography?

Haha, I do have a standing desk, and you’ve just reminded me that now would be a good time to stand up! Mapmaking has certainly given me a great appreciation for the cartographers of yester-year who mapped the world without ever using digital data or satellite imagery, and oftentimes without ever visiting the place they have mapped. I still can’t quite comprehend how cartographers could draw the coastline of a country as accurately as they did from a few surveying angles (I know there is a lot more to it, but seriously, it is mind-boggling!). I still love to take paper maps with me as I travel, as well as pick up whatever maps are locally available. Like many cartographers, I admit the convenience of digital maps and apps, but I miss the tactile feel of a paper map and the ability to see not only your destination but the things that surround it. Traveling takes me back to my cartographic roots of envisioning the map in my head and connecting it to my real world surroundings and it also exposes me to different mapping styles and conventions from other parts of the world!

What’s your next adventure, cartographic or otherwise?

My family and I (my wife and 1.5 year old son) will be heading up to New York City at the end of June to celebrate New York and World Pride! This is actually cartographically connected because the trip was envisioned while researching the Prejudice and Pride map I referenced earlier. I have visited New York City many times before, but it will be so fun to look at it through a new lens of our LGBTQ history and to take part in some historical events of our own!

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