A Lifetime of Friendship - Why I Chose Lancaster

Alan Smith

Alan Smith (Geography, 1992 Lonsdale) tells of his decision to study at Lancaster and how his time led to firstly a civil service career followed by a prestigious role with the Financial Times.

"Why did I choose Lancaster? It was the closest university I could find to the Lake District — I was the archetypal geography student who loved the fells! In fact, I liked the high ground so much, I spent my second year on an exchange programme at the University of Colorado. It was there that I had fun learning cartography and GIS (Geographic Information Systems), without realising how important they would be to my future self.

Graduating in the middle of a recession in the early 1990s gave me pause for thought — what do you do with a geography degree? A big break eventually followed when I joined the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as a ‘GIS support officer’, beginning a long sequence of job titles I have held since graduating that did not exist when I was a student!

At ONS, I was lucky to be given time and encouragement to continue learning, including a Master’s in GIS specialising in interactive mapping and visualisation. I subsequently headed up a new data visualisation team — as an emerging field, this led to lots of exciting opportunities: working with the UN, invitations to speak at conferences across the world and a TED.com featured talk. Another memorable moment was a trip to Buckingham Palace in 2011 to collect an OBE for services to official statistics.

In 2015, after nearly two decades in the civil service, I joined the Financial Times in London as its first ever ‘Data Visualisation Editor’, arriving in the newsroom in time to help cover Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Then it was off to Tokyo for a brief stint in the newsroom of the FT’s parent company Nikkei.

Today, as the Head of Visual and Data Journalism, I lead an amazing interdisciplinary team responsible for data analysis and graphics on a wide range of topics from the Covid-19 pandemic through to climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’ve also had the chance to write for the FT, including a series of articles on data visualisation. This led to the publication of my first book, ‘How Charts Work’, in 2022. Most recently, I’ve been appointed an Honorary Professor of Practice at UCL, which has brought me back into contact with the academic community.

It might now be decades later but my years at Lancaster still play an important part in my life. Every year I meet up with two fellow Lonsdalians from the class of 1992 to explore new places and remember old times. Recent years have included a sea safari on the Isle of Skye, cycling the Reivers Route from the Irish Sea to North Sea, boating on the Norfolk Broads — and of course a trip to our old stomping ground to grab a pint in the Water Witch. The lifetime friendships you make as an undergraduate really are the secret sauce of university life.

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