Arun was a born in Dubai, where his father worked as a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. A few years later, the family moved to Abu Dhabi. A quiet child who preferred spending time with his books and computer, Arun spent his formative years flipping through his elder sister’s world atlas, memorising the names of interesting places, tracing the outlines of countries, memorizing place names and exploring the relationships between mountains, forests, rivers and cities. Unsurprisingly, Arun developed a passion for cartography and a deep interest in all kinds of maps at an early age. His favourite leisure-time activity was creating detailed plans of imaginary cities on the backside of discarded drafting sheets from his father’s office. Even his favourite computer games were the ones that revolved around maps – GTA, Age of Empires, Cities XL and Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Arun was also fascinated by aeroplanes and aviation. He loved flying, especially the bird’s eye view of land and sense of freedom that being high above ground gave him. It was while flying to India during his summer vacation that he was struck by the idea of taking the depiction of Abu Dhabi and Chennai airports in Microsoft Flight Simulator similar to real life. Arun was still in school when he began devoting his free time to learning the software required to create these 3D models.He also learnt Photoshop to give accurate texture to the topography. Having done this, he began creating add-ons and animations for the flight simulator before releasing them online.
By the time he reached class 10, he was already a very popular member of the global Flight Simulator Community for his beautiful aerial photos from planes. Somebody on the forum once called him ‘plane mad’, which Arun liked so much that he made it his username. Thanks to his love for maps and planes, Arun wanted to become an air traffic controller. After passing out from high school, he decided to pursue electronics and communications engineering from Anna University in Chennai. During his college days, he spent most of his free time fine-tuning his cartographic skills and contributing heavily to OpenStreetMap projects. For the uninitiated, OSM is a collaborative volunteer project to create crowd-sourced editable maps of the world that can be freely used and shared by anybody under an open license.
Realising how difficult it was to go around the city without information about the bus stops and routes, Arun travelled across the city to document all its bus stops and routes for his first civic project – the Chennai Bus Route Mapping Project. He also attended and spoke about his project at BarCamps, blogger meetups, and Tweetups.It was at one of these BarCamps that Arun met two people who helped him build a prototype website. The website would display the maps he had designed and allow the user to click on a bus stop (text) to check the routes associated with it. The first Indian public transport map website, the Chennai Bus Route Mapping Project was built completely on open source in 2008, a time when Google Transit didn’t even exist!
After a group of Mumbaikars got in touch with Arun, he also designed the ChaloBEST mapping project for Mumbai’s BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport) buses routes and stops. Next, inspired by London’s metro map, he designed a local train map for Chennai and uploaded the map on Chennai’s Wikipedia page. Within a day, Arun’s map garnered much appreciation from Wikipedia users along with requests to make similar maps for other cities too. The talented cartographer obliged by taking up the task of making the road map of India, starting with the Golden Quadrilateral project, and uploading on Wikipedia. Made using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), Arun’s maps were of a quality that had never been seen online and soon, they were present on practically every India-related page on Wikipedia. At one point of time, over 30,000 articles related to India on Wikipedia were using maps made by Arun!