Julian and Danica

Maps take award-winning Kiwi across the world

Two young New Zealand mapmakers received a global award for developing new mapping applications that help people access the outdoors.

Danica Torres (26) and Julian Hitchman (30) have been selected to receive a Special Achievement in GIS Award at the 2022 Esri Global User Conference. The global award recognises outstanding work with GIS technology. Danica and Julian’s nomination stood out from more than 100,000 others. The award presentation and Esri conference was in San Diego July 11-15.

GIS stands for geographic information system, and people around the world use it to create, manage and analyse digital maps and data.

Danica and Julian studied together at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. They then worked together at the Walking Access Commission Ara Hīkoi Aotearoa, where they discovered a shared passion for using maps and data to help New Zealanders access the outdoors.

Danica grew up in the Philippines and moved to New Zealand when she was 16. Danica says public access is very different in the Philippines than in NZ.

"It’s not talked about like here in New Zealand, and many areas are more privatised. Every time you want to go to the beach, you pay an entrance fee; you want to go to a park, you pay a fee. You cannot just walk in. And then I moved here. You can go to a nice beach and just see the water. And that was something that I never realised, was like, normal, I guess, and how good it is to have that access."

Danica and Julian got into doing GIS during their shared time at university studying geology.

"Before that, I’d never heard of GIS. I didn’t know it existed," says Danica. "Initially, I was a bit intimidated by GIS. But everyone else was taking GIS. I just thought, okay, I’ll give it a go. But I ended up really enjoying it."

Julian grew up in Hawke’s Bay.

"Our doorstep was amazing - big redwoods where you could go mountain biking and exploring and walking. And I guess that informed my outlook."

Julian got into geology because "you know, geology is exploring and is being in the outdoors. And a big part of it is also mapping. I hadn’t heard of GIS, but as a kid I read stories like Treasure Island and The Hobbit, seeing these amazing fantasy maps that tell stories.

"When I found out that you could study it, I was like, absolutely. And yeah, I just fell in love with it, really."

The two geology friends both came to work for the Walking Access Commission. Julian says the Commission’s kaupapa was immediately one he connected with.

"I stayed at Waiheke Island a few times as a kid. We’d go to this beach called Cactus Bay, year in, year out, and it was beautiful, like crystalline water and golden sand, a really nice, secluded spot. And it was publicly accessible; you could just walk up. And then one year, you couldn’t. I was always a bit miffed by that."

Danica and Julian are receiving the GIS achievement award for work developing Pocket Maps — a mobile application for the outdoors. Pocket Maps allows New Zealanders to view public access areas and conservation land across Aotearoa — from their device, anytime and anywhere. Maps can be viewed online with a Wi-Fi connection or downloaded to be viewed offline. Julian and Danica also developed the Commission’s open data portal, which gives everyone in the world free access to the Commission’s access data to create their own maps and resources.

New Zealand is not a big country, and the Walking Access Commission is one of its smallest Crown agencies. Despite this, and amid the COVID-19 lockdown, the small GIS team of Danica and Julian delivered two internationally recognised public applications instead of relying on external consultancies.

Julian and Danica travel to San Diego in July for the Esri Global User Conference. Esri International is the world’s leading provider of GIS software. Esri’s NZ distributor, Eagle Technology, nominated the Walking Access Commission Ara Hīkoi Aotearoa to receive the global award.

Addendum: Favourite outdoor spots

Danica: I like Mount Kaukau. It’s near the neighbourhood I grew up in when I moved to New Zealand. And it has a perfect vantage point where you can see all of Wellington. When I was younger, I was always amazed by what I could see and how beautiful it was.

Julian: I love Aoraki National Park. I’ve only been there once, but it made a massive impression on me — the epicness of all the mountains, glaciers and rushing rivers, like huge, absolutely massive. You just feel like you’re an ant.