Meet the Team: Erki, the Eternal Optimist

Many people working at Positium share a passion for geography. In this #MeetTheTeam post, we talk to Erki, one of the two people who has been living their passion at the company for the longest – 15 years. In this post, he tells us how that passion emerged when he was finishing high school, leading him to study geoinformatics at the University of Tartu. Keep reading to find out how he ended up at Positium, and how he went from developer to member of the board.

The Beginning

Erki recalls writing his first computer program when he was in the 7th or 8th grade. In the mid-’90s, having a computer at home was not common, and computers were not so easy to use. “They were boring, so if you wanted to play around with one, you had to build something”, Erki said.

After finishing high school, Erki knew he wanted to study something related to computers and the digital world, as he enjoyed coding and playing around with his home computer. However, since he was also passionate about the outdoors and the environment, becoming a full-time developer did not seem like the best fit.

Erki was very familiar with geography. His mother and sister are both geographers. As his sister is three years his senior, he got an insight into geography studies through her, and that made him curious enough to look at the curriculum where he discovered the geoinformatics specialisation.

Back then, Erki did not really know what geoinformatics meant, but he saw in it a connection between the physical and digital worlds right away. “I was interested in location data and how to bring value out of it”, Erki said. He got his Master's degree in geoinformatics from the University of Tartu, and he is currently finishing his PhD.

“The dominant countries in the world are the ones that gather a lot of geographical information about the physical world, where the best resources are, what the best routes to distribute them are, etc. Without geographical knowledge, you would not make smart decisions.”

Working at Positium

Erki in 2006 at the Venice Biennale

When Positium was founded in 2003, Erki was still living a student life and enjoying things like hitchhiking across Europe.

Three years later, when both Erki and Margus Tiru were working together at another GIS company, they were approached by one of the founders of Positium, professor Rein Ahas from the University of Tartu. He and another founder of Positium, architect Ülar Mark, were working on an exhibition for the Venice Biennale titled “JointSpace: Location-aware urban space and poetry”, and they needed technical help from Erki and Margus to build a system that would allow them to get mobile positioning data into urban planning applications.

This experience proved to be so exciting for both of them that they felt they wanted to do more in that field.

In 2007, they officially joined Positium and established Positium’s first office with the first two additional employees with the aim of bringing mobile positioning data applications to more clients. Positium’s founders Ahas and Mark took the roles of members of the board, and the company’s third founder, Heikki Kalle, continued as an advisor.

A Passion for Location Data

“Currently there is a lot of location data generated around the world”, Erki said. He explained that, at the beginning, most of this data comes in the form of very boring-looking tables with mainly three attributes (ID, location and time).

“You can put it on a map to visualise it, where it is, you can see it in detail or zoomed out in more context or an overview, or you could bring out some of the patterns in the data. This is what I mean when I say bringing value to the data. And this is what I am passionate about.”

When Erki started working at Positium as a developer, big data, especially mobile positioning data was not used for official statistics and was also new for mobility studies. This also meant that no standards existed, and Erki was there building them from the start.

“I kind of like this messy environment, when you don’t know how the system works. I am not really good at working in environments where everything is certain. I like building new systems and, by doing that, basically creating a standard for it. It fits me when the area is not so certain”, Erki said.

With time, Erki started taking more executive and management roles at the company. He said learning to move from a more hands-on role, working directly with the data, into a more executive and management role, was not easy. He explained that, for him, there is always the impulse to get involved in projects to work hands-on with data, and learning to leave those tasks to other people in the company has been a challenge he has enjoyed.

Some years ago, Erki became CEO of Positium and had that role for several years; however, he prefers not to highlight it too much. “There is no need to emphasise the CEO role or different titles as they are mainly for the world outside Positium and for bureaucracy. This is not how we run Positium”, he explained.

Why Location Data Matters

When asked what inspires him, Erki said: “It’s when you do something with the data and have an impact on the world that surrounds you. For example, working on a project to improve the bus network in Tartu. I am personally enjoying the improvement, because I can feel it and benefit from it when I use public transportation.”

Today, the methodologies and approaches used in Positium’s projects around the world enable clients to process location-based big data into meaningful statistics. These statistics enable countries around the world to make better decisions and build better societies.

Location data matters a lot, Erki highlighted, in trade, transportation, wars, and recovery from the pandemic. “Those who have better intelligence will succeed over others. For example, a city, if it has information about how it is operating, it can make better informed decisions for the future. If a city does not know how it is operating, it is much harder, for example, to restart the economy after COVID-19, respond adequately or compete for talent in a very competitive reality.”

Doing Volunteering Work Close to His Heart

Besides what he does at Positium, Erki is now a volunteer teacher and mentor at his daughter’s school for their technology club. The club is an initiative of the school and not part of the public education curriculum, and it has the goal of providing technical skills to young girls.

For Erki, the fact that science and technology are dominated by men is a very important issue that needs to be addressed globally. He believes that the way technology projects are designed, for example, in the robotics clubs so popular nowadays, they are more oriented to the way boys play, which gives them an advantage.

The club Erki is involved in addresses this by creating projects that have the potential to be more interesting for girls. “Our world is becoming more and more this digital-influenced world. And in some sense, girls might have less impact in the world if they do not have those skills compared to their male counterparts, so it is necessary to support girls to be on the same path”, he said.

3 Facts About Erki

Erki and his dog Juuli

In his free time, Erki loves to travel and he also enjoys exploring nature. He is an avid snowboarder, and every year he participates in the sporting events organised by Tartu’s marathon club, mainly cycling, running, and skiing.

Erki also loves to spend time with his family and Scottish Terrier Juuli, playing board games every evening and taking care of his home and garden.

Coworkers describe him as someone who is always optimistic and believes that everything has a solution. He has also been characterised as a little bit crazy, quirky, clever and kind – and that’s exactly how we like him!

Read more Meet the Team posts here

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