Raluca Nicola: “The community profits from everyone’s knowledge.”

Raluca Nicola

Raluca Nicola works at Esri as a Product Engineer for ArcGIS API for JavaScript. She enjoys creating maps and data visualizations using the latest web technologies. Most of these maps are in 3D and all of them live on the web. 

Raluca was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ana Leticia Ma.

Q: Can you tell me about your journey as a web cartographer? 

A: My journey started with me being clueless about what I want to study and generally what I want to do in life. I started studying math in college because that’s what I liked most during high-school. In my second year I realized it was too abstract for me, so I quit math and started studying geography. I found it interesting to learn how the world around us works. I soon discovered GIS and enjoyed analyzing and visualizing data to explain real world phenomena. Then I got more and more drawn towards the visualization part, and in my Master’s studies I focused on cartography. During those studies, I had a web cartography course and I was hooked. I like coding and the web is a great environment: I can create beautiful, interactive visualizations and it’s so easy to share them with others. 

Q: What do you like most about being a cartographer?

A: I love the data exploration part. It feels a bit like detective work to process and visualize a dataset in various ways and extract important information from it. And then the part that I enjoy the most is figuring out how to convey that information to others in a good way. In recent years I discovered that the magic in visualization comes when you combine concepts and ideas from different fields in novel ways…and I love to apply that to cartography. 3D cartography for example, makes use of 2D cartography and classical data visualization concepts, but it’s also heavily influenced by architecture, games and art. And like everything else nowadays, it’s also heavily influenced by technology. 

Q: Where do you get your inspiration to make maps? 

A: I try to take it from everywhere: maps and visualizations I stumble upon (mostly online), movies, commercials, articles I read, ideas I discuss with colleagues and friends. I think inspiration can come from the most unexpected places! 🙂 

Q: How’s your experience working with 2D and 3D maps? Do you have a preference for one over another?

A: My motto is: choose the technique that helps you send your message across in the best way. From experience, I would say that there are fields where one could be better than the other. For example, 3D is great when you visualize data related to cities or urban planning, and 2D can be better for complex multivariate data visualizations. But even in those cases, I’d first analyze the goal of the project and the audience, and then I’d choose the mapping technique. 

Q: How do you keep up with the latest trends in mapping? 

A: I think social media like Twitter or Linkedin are great platforms to see what people who are passionate about GIS and cartography are up to. Whenever I can, I also try to attend conferences that are specific to cartography like NACIS, Eurocarto or the International Cartographic Conference. 

Q: You live in a country with the most beautiful landscape. What outdoor activities do you like to do in Switzerland? 

A: Switzerland is amazing if you like mountains! I try to go hiking every weekend, and I often bike around Zurich, exploring the surroundings. I also enjoy skiing in winter, even though I’m not the greatest skier. 

Q: What was it like to work in the Swiss Alps and make maps for the Swiss National Park?

A: Such a great experience! It was a one year internship after university and I learned a lot there. I was really lucky to have a great supervisor who gave me some awesome and challenging tasks to work on. The village where I lived was very small; about 1000 inhabitants. And that was very strange for me, because I had only lived in big cities until then. I lived in a shared flat with other interns at the park. We had a really nice time, we cooked together, went hiking a lot, and watched movies. I also participated in my first karaoke there…turns out I can’t really sing, hehe!

Q: Aside from making maps, do you have any nerdy hobbies that you want to tell us about?

A: Not really a hobby, but for sure nerdy: I have an obsession with computer keyboards. At some point I built my own keyboard, but it was probably the worst one in my collection and the one I paid the most for…my fingers didn’t really get along with the layout of the keys. 

Q: One of your maps was featured on our Geohipster calendar in 2020, so you’re ahead of the GeoHipster game. What advice do you give to our users?

A: One piece of advice I try to offer is to share with others what you do and learn 🙂 The community can profit so much from everyone’s knowledge. Even if you think that it’s something simple, I’m sure someone out there could use it at some point, so share it!

Maps and mappers of the 2021 calendar: Owen Powell, August

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I am a GIS Consultant working for Arup in the UK, with a specialism in data engineering and 3D visualisation. I think I have an unusual background for someone in GIS, having studied Fine Art, and later 3D Modelling & Animation. I have a passion for art and design, and studied painting, photography, and architecture which I still love. 

I got into GIS by accident but found it fascinating, especially being able to join data together with spatial relationships. I learned Maya & Blender (thanks to Nick George if you’re out there!) before ever knowing GIS was a thing. 

I am one of the people responsible for the popularity of Blender in cartography in recent years, having developed and shared new workflows and techniques. 

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: I am slightly obsessed with Japan, and Japanese culture – it is so unique. I made this map of Hachijō-jima Island for no real reason other than to create something new and different, plus I love making maps of islands. In my work I try to do something different each time, and consider it a failure if I just repeat a style I’ve done before, or in the style of someone else. 

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: I had some help from @kenjirototsuji with finding the data, and navigating the complexities of Japanese GML schemas from the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.

The basis of the map was made with FME, in creating a surface as well as textures such as the coastal vignette. I love that FME gives you complete control and works with practically any format of data. FME is vital in my work, effectively extending the possibilities in Blender beyond the standard VFX and games industry data formats. 

The map is an orthographic render of a 3D model, made from triangulating contours and extruding 2d features (GML > FBX using FME). This is something I find myself doing more and more, because the resolution of elevation data rarely fits well with the available topographic data. If you create your own DEM raster or surface then there are opportunities to fill voids or smooth areas to match your intended map scale. 

With this map I used Blender’s node-based shader editor where you can mix map layers as textures to affect the way it reacts to light, for example with the roads, water, and the coastal vignette.