2018 Retrospective

It's that time of year again. Christmas has been and gone, along with the stress that comes with it. The new year is already feeling far too comfortable. The previous year feeling more and more like a distant memory as the days go by. It's a time when people naturally start to take stock of what they achieved over the past year — their successes; their failures — and start to look forward at the coming year and what it might bring for them.

This is my retrospective of 2018 and a glimpse at what I hope 2019 has in store.

2018

To say that 2018 was eventful is probably an understatement. While there were some major single events that caused a big impact, there were also a lot of little events that together helped shaped the year. All in all, it was both a difficult and amazing year at the same time.

The following are my thoughts on the past year, broken down into key areas:

Career

2018 brought a big change in my career — in June I left UrbanSim after 2 years working there. Leaving them was bittersweet; I was immensely proud of the work that I'd achieved there and the friends made, however in hindsight I was also burning out and very much in need of change. The product they're working will always be fascinating to me and I often miss being a core part of it. I wish them all the best for the future.

After UrbanSim I took some time out to look after myself and work out what was next. I'd planned to take at least a couple months but it didn't even take me a month before I was already considering a move into more traditional, short-term contracting. I put some feelers out and before I knew it I was signing a contract to work with the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC for short), a collaboration between UN Environment and the UK charity, WCMC.

Working for WCMC for 4 months was an incredibly rewarding and refreshing experience; arguably one of the most satisfying moments of my career for a quite some time. It was my first time working for a large charity and I very much enjoyed the feeling I got from working on projects that actually meant something; projects that had a tangible impact to a large number of people and the environment as a whole. It was a pleasure working with the team there and I was glad that we both wanted to extend the initial contract. I'd work with them again in a heartbeat.

As for the remainder of the year; that was spent working on my own projects, which I'll talk about next.

Side projects

2018 was a sporadic year for me in terms of side projects. I was so distracted with work and other things that I didn't spend anywhere near enough time on side projects as I would have liked.

If I had to pick the projects that I enjoyed the most (in no particular order) then I'd have to start with the Seven Days Of Self photography project that was kickstarted by Rick Nunn. The premise was to challenge your approach to photography by taking one photo a day for a week, the catch being that each photo had to represent you in some way.

I had a great time taking part, even if I found it incredibly challenging at times, mostly because it forced me to step outside my comfort zone (landscapes) and become a better photographer in the process. You can find a couple of my favourites below (and all of them on my Instagram).

Outside of photography I spent a long time towards the end of the year working on some new geo-spatial visualisations using global air traffic data. This has been an area of interest for me for quite some time but I've never felt like I was able to do it justice in the past. Fortunately I had more time on my hands this time and I spent much of it learning how to properly read and clean the data, as well as putting together some bespoke WebGL output for visualising the processed data both as static images and as animated videos. It's still not quite finished but I'm pretty pleased with the results so far!

Aside from the air traffic visualisations I also spent some time working on printed maps. I've always wanted to work more with physical media but never really attempted it outside of photography. My favourite map that I created showed elevation in the style of Joy Division.

Rounding off the year I finally started working on digitising the written and photographic legacy of my travel-writing grandparents. They spent the best part of 30 years travelling the world writing immensely-detailed travel guides and taking beautiful photos at the same time. They were arguably some of the first travel-writers focussed on tourism, especially out of those that turned it into a legitimate career.

With well over 2,000 Kodachrome slides and countless hand-written notebooks dating from 1950 onwards, I certainly have my work cut out for me. Fortunately I see this more as a labour of love than something that'll be completed in a short space of time so I'm more than ready to take it on.

At the end of the year I kitted myself out with a new scanner and various cleaning implements and set to work. The initial results are very promising!

Personal

From a personal level, both 2017 and 2018 were quite difficult. There wasn't any specific event that caused problems, moreover a combination of stress from long-term family issues coupled with a new awareness and desire to sort out my own mental health. As a result I spent the latter part of 2017 seeing a counsellor (highly recommended) and used the lessons learnt during that time to change various aspects of my life in 2018. If you're interested, I wrote in detail about my journey with mental health earlier in the year.

One of the areas I worked on improving was tackling my growing feeling of isolation and loneliness. It's something that has bothered me for a while but I hadn't addressed it for whatever reason — probably because I was afraid to admit it and talk about it. Part of it is due to working remotely for so many companies across my career, which makes it hard to forge long-term friendships that can be fostered with regular face-to-face contact. Another aspect that didn't help was moving up to Chester and leaving all my friends behind in London. While I don't regret moving here (far from it), it certainly increased the sense of isolation — especially when I didn't put effort into making new friends up here outside of work.

Tackling isolation isn't simple and it takes a lot of effort, however you can start with some pretty basic steps that'll make things a lot better. What worked for me is slowly easing myself into the local tech scene by attending (and speaking at!) community events, as well as working a couple days a week from a local co-working studio. I very much value time on my own with my own thoughts, but slowly but surely I'm starting to appreciate the moments where I'm surrounded by interesting and like-minded people. I've already noticed a dramatic change in myself since I made an effort to improve things, and I only really started towards the end of the year.

I also made a deliberate effort in the latter half of 2018 to take the time out and look after myself in general. I can't understate how important it is to give yourself the time and space you need to deal with things or to work on the things that make you most happy. And while I appreciate that it's not as simple to take loads of time off, I implore you to think about the last time you actually took any time out for you, even just for a day. And I don't just mean taking a holiday; I mean to give yourself space to think something through, or to take time out to work on the thing that you want to do, not what you feel you should be doing.

Travel

2018 was a pretty packed year for travel:

  • A really cold weekend in a camper in Elan Valley, Wales
  • Another really cold weekend away, this time in Budapest, Hungary
  • A (not as cold) weekend away in the Lake District
  • A long and very hot weekend in Malta
  • 9 days exploring Ireland in a camper
  • A week exploring Scotland in a camper for my birthday (can you sense the camper trend?)
  • Countless trips to Snowdonia, Wales

As someone who never used to take holiday I've definitely learnt to appreciate a decent trip away. Even more so when it's somewhere new and interesting that I can explore with my camera.

If I had to pick my favourite place in 2018 I would have to say Ireland, especially as it was my first time there and the weather was glorious. Though the week in Scotland is definitely a close second.

I'll leave you with a few of my favourite photos from those trips:

2019

So what about 2019? Well in general I plan to continue improving on the things I started in 2018. I'm also going to try and be more realistic about what's possible to achieve in a year. We'll see how I get on!

Career

I haven't decided if I'll continue contracting or go full-time somewhere. I guess it depends on the role and the company, though I'm certain that I want to continue working remotely for now. I'm hoping to move away from 100% programming and more into planning, research and development.

On that note, I'm currently looking for work so do get on touch if you know of anything!

Side projects

This one is fairly easy. I'll continue the (huge) project digitising my grandparents' travel-writing career and hopefully have something more tangible to show for it by the end of the year.

Aside from that I'll continue creating more geo-spatial data visualisations from my never-ending list of ideas, and also continue progressing and challenging my photography skills.

Anything else will be a nice bonus!

Personal

2019 will be another year of nurturing my mental health. I want to spend more time doing the things I want to be doing, rather than the things I feel like I should be doing. I also want to spend more time working on the isolation and getting to know more people in the local area.

On a different note, I want to spend some time this year to cut down the amount of personal possessions that I have. I'm not a hoarder by any means but I've somehow managed to collect quite the pile of random crap over the years, much of which I can't even remember when they were last used. I really need to get over the fear of selling or giving away things that I know I can live without.

Travel

This is an interesting one as I haven't much planned for 2019 yet in terms of travel. I know that I'll be headed to Vienna, Austria with my girlfriend, and there's talk of 1/2 a month in Northern Italy at some point, but aside from that there's nothing set in stone. The dream would be to get out to Norway and experience the Northern Lights, but we'll have to see if that idea happens this year. I hope so.

What about you?

If you haven't yet made time to sit down and take stock of all the things that happened to you last year then I highly recommend that you do it as soon as you can. If anything it's fun to be nostalgic, though you may even find that it's therapeutic and helps in other ways too.

Please do share your retrospective with me if you end up writing about it, I'd love to read it!