Brooke Hatcher

By Emily Frisan

Since childhood, Brooke Hatcher has been fascinated with climatology. Growing up on a horse farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains shaped her love for earth, nature, and weather. Now as a geospatial/remote sensing lead, she measures changes on Earth and brings visualizations from data to life. From her job as a senior geospatial analyst at New Light Technologies to her volunteer storytelling work with URISA as vice chair of outreach, or her recognition by Geospatial World as a Young Geospatial Professional to Watch in 2024, Hatcher credits her positive experience in the industry to the examples of powerful women in the field, including her first professional mentors at MAXAR Catherine Ipsan and Amanda Monse, who showed her that she, too, can “become a master in this field.”

Hatcher discovered her passion for geospatial information systems in an undergraduate geography course. “Being able to visualize patterns and spatial analysis, like seeing the charts over time of rain gauges, was seeing nature in a new way,” she says.

 

Educational journey in and beyond the classroom

Hatcher received her undergraduate degree in geography from the University of Mary Washington. Like many geographers, she stumbled upon the discipline almost by coincidence. She excelled in history during high school but hesitated to pursue a career in the subject because she was unsure about potential job prospects. She began her undergraduate degree as a biology major but soon realized a career in the lab wasn’t suitable, either.

Hatcher began her professional career creating digital nautical charts for Leidos, which opened the world to features humans can’t see with our eyes, like hydrolines and ocean depth. Following her experience at Leidos, an opportunity opened at MAXAR where Hatcher would go on to create global products for clients, such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. This was the first time she began to gain experience in Landsat and Sentinel 2.

“You’re seeing the ocean in a whole new way,” Hatcher explained. “It was really beautiful to have my first job working on digital nautical charts, then working at MAXAR with land cover and creating remote sensing products with five-meter resolution.”

After gaining a few years of professional experience, Hatcher decided to pursue her master’s degree in geography. After considering her options, she got her degree online at North Carolina State.

As a geospatial engineering consultant, Hatcher continues to learn and keeps up with the latest news and information in the industry. In her professional career, she continues to read peer-reviewed papers and professional blogs and consult tutorials on platforms like YouTube and Udemy.

From Local to Global: How Geography and Opportunities Expands Horizons

Hatcher’s career is focused on developing geospatial solutions and products for disaster response with FEMA and World Bank, working on predictive damage assessments, assessing the potential impact on communities and critical infrastructure, and sharing disaster geospatial data through interagency communication efforts. As a geospatial analyst and a geographer, Hatcher’s jobs involve collaborating with other experts in many other areas, including glaciology, meteorology, paleotempestology (the study of hurricanes), and specialization in biohazards.

The resulting collaborations are mutually beneficial. Geographers “need to know that information… [and] we help work with them to make their vision come to life. We’re translating for them by creating maps,” Hatcher states.

Specifically, FEMA hired Hatcher for remote sensing and image processing, creating products to assist during disasters. Remote sensing techniques can penetrate hurricanes or wildfire smoke to extract information about structures that have been damaged.

“It was so rad,” Hatcher recalls. “It reflects geography in a beautiful way.”

In her latest role at New Light Technologies, Hatcher frequently works with user interfaces (UI) and user experience (UX) to build web applications that help clients understand the community’s profile, such as which areas are going to be most vulnerable, and who are at the most risk of disasters. She explains, “We need to really make sure that the final product is visualized to a specific community, playing into the history and culture, so that it respects the community, and they understand it enough to feel comfortable giving feedback.”

Beyond the Map: Community Impact

Beyond technical skills, important geographic skills include being able to conduct and analyze qualitative and quantitative data. “We don’t always need maps,” she states. “The reason why we need some maps is because we can’t see anything when people are dying, or buildings are being destroyed.”

Therefore, even when making predictive risk products, qualitative skills are important to understand the ability to organize various types of data, understand the importance of scales, whether there are invisible boundaries, which ones take priority, and how this affects the results of the map or product. It’s essential to have a deep understanding of community demographics and vulnerability.

“After doing this for five or six years, I am convinced more than ever, the most effective data is at the community level. We can work globally, but it just strips so much quality and quantity of data. Also, when reporting or responding to a disaster at the community level, there is passion associated with it because that’s your home.”

Being a geographer, Hatcher finds it fascinating to understand why certain geographies are so unique in the world, and how they have shaped rare communities throughout history. “It is important to preserve these unique geographic properties, even outside of my job. I am passionate about creative traveling and exploring these unique places.”

From the Pacific Northwest, Cascades, or the nation’s capital, Hatcher hopes to use her geospatial and web design skills to inspire women to take risks, explore the world, and “make geography hip.” Although her goals are constantly changing, she is dedicated to finding her purpose, and path, and is passionate about capturing the stories, art, culture, problems, and risks of the small and unique communities.

Learn more about what a degree in geography can do for you by reading more AAG Career Profiles and discover the resources we offer for your professional development journey.

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Judith Keller

By Mikelle Benfield

AAG Summer 2023 Intern, Annie Liu, sat down with Judith Keller to find out more about what it’s like to have a career as a geographer in academia. For Dr. Keller, this wasn’t even an initial consideration, but it’s become a fulfilling career path. Read more to learn how Dr. Keller has navigated (and is still navigating) academia as a professional geographer, from her inspirations to her current research, to her advice on whether or not to pursue a PhD.

How would you describe your current position and the primary responsibilities associated with it? 

“I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the geography department at Heidelberg University and at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, and I’m currently at the very beginning of my postdoc. I’m still figuring out this new role, but I can say that my main focus is on research and writing. I’m not obliged to teach, but I usually teach one class per semester because it’s just something that I enjoy doing. And then there’s always small things happening at the department and in our program where I’m involved in organizing different little events, where we invite guest speakers, things like that.

“I also do science communication every now and then. I’ve been in podcasts. I’ve published some work with The Conversation, which is an online news outlet for academics. And then here in Heidelberg we’ve also done tours on Urban Development for school kids and various groups. I’m also an editor with the Radical Housing Journal.”

Can you talk a little bit more about your research interests and what you’re researching in particular right now? 

“I’m an urban geographer and my main focus is on housing and housing development. I’m particularly interested in looking at how people’s housing biographies influence their political biographies and tracing their ways into housing activism. That’s what I hope to do or focus more on during my postdoc: to have sort of a political ethnography of housing rights movements.”

When you say “biography,” what are you meaning by that?

“There is the term ‘housing biography,’ which is basically tracing people’s movements through time. At certain life stages, they’re more likely to live in certain housing situations than in others. Like, as a student, you might share an apartment. Later in life, you might settle down, invest in real estate, things like that. We can trace those movements. But there are also certain ruptures within that housing biography because of displacements, evictions, or foreclosures. I want to look at what happens when there is such a break. What does it do to people’s political biography and to their sense of home and belonging and ontological security?”

When you look back at your education trajectory, how did you discover geography and how did you realize it connected with your passions and goals?

“It definitely started with my dad. He used to be a big geography nerd without ever formally studying it. So, geography has been with me for most of my life and it has always been something that I enjoyed doing. But it took me quite a while to figure out that it was something you could pursue as a career.”

“I remember towards the end of my high school years when I was looking into what would I go on doing after, my mom was like, ‘So why don’t you major in geography?’ And I was like, ‘Well, that makes a lot of sense!’ And I know this sounds a bit cheesy now, but then I never looked back. And that’s how it all got started.”

“During my studies, I thought that I wanted to become a teacher. I never intended to stay in academia. And then one thing led to another. I became a research student in our department. And then while I was still trying to figure out what to do with all of it, I got offered a Ph.D. position. And that’s my way into professional geography.”

Talk more about the second part of that question, talking about aspirations.

“Even when I was in high school, we were taught that geography is always about creating sustainable futures: ecologically, economically, and socially. And all of my life I have been very concerned with issues of social justice. And then I realized I could become a professional geographer and make it part of my professional life. I can use my own interests and my talents best.”

“It’s something that I always treasure about geography: that it allows me to connect my concerns for social and spatial justice with my everyday work as a researcher and as a teacher here at the university.”

“Compared to other career paths, geography is always concerned with real life issues and is trying to produce real life solutions, especially in a field like Urban Development and housing. That’s why I rarely feel like I’m trapped within the ivory tower that is academia, because I always see my work as having real-life impact … beyond my professional life.”

How has your education in geography prepared you to be a researcher? What geographic knowledge do you think is important and useful to know for your research? 

“I was a research student and that has been quite crucial because it gave me a very accurate picture of what academic life and research look like in the day-to-day. When I decided to stay in academia, I did so very intentionally. I knew the pros and cons of the job.”

“As a student, I was always able to take interdisciplinary courses so I could bridge all my various interests … I could look into how geography relates to cultural studies or to history. One of my favorite classes was called “Planning and Protest,” and it was taught by an urban geographer and a historian. It looked at how protest movements and riots influence urban planning in the U.S. I always think it’s so cool to learn about different disciplines and how researchers from different disciplines work and do their research because we all use different methods and frameworks.”

“I think what’s most important is that we teach students methods and a certain way of thinking through and with data. Learning about methodology has been most crucial for my career. And it’s not only about how to apply certain methods in the field, but also about critically reflecting on positionality and on ethical issues in the field.”

Are there any specific methodologies that are super important to your work, or specific theories and practices?

“I mostly do qualitative research. I’ve worked a lot with interviews and participatory observations. I think particularly participatory observations have had quite an impact on my work because most of my research takes place abroad. And so just being there, being in the field and being in this very specific and different setting has always informed my research outcomes. It’s exciting to go into the field and learn things that you could never learn when you’re just staying at home in front of your computer. It has certainly been foundational to my work.

Do you have a favorite part of your job?

“I really enjoyed the mix of research, writing, reading, and teaching. You always learn and process information in different ways and I often find that something that you might understand theoretically only makes sense when you put it into practice or when you go into the field. I really need this sort of mix.”

“More generally, I’d say that I love that within academia we have a very high degree of flexibility and independence. I treasure that I can work remotely whenever I want to or that I can have a late start into my day if I don’t feel well. I can just follow my energy flow and see where it takes me on certain days. I can travel a lot and explore new places, and I think that really makes it all worthwhile.”

What advice do you have for geography students and early career researchers?

“You really have to love academia in order to do it wholeheartedly. I see a lot of people who are not in a Ph.D. program or a postdoctoral program for the right reasons or who expected it to be something else, and then it makes them feel miserable. You have to be very intentional about your decision, or else it’s just going to be very stressful and exhausting. I truly believe that there’s so many wonderful jobs out there that you don’t have to bully yourself into doing a Ph.D. or pursuing a certain degree if it’s not for you.

“If you decide to do a Ph.D., my advice would be to always stay true to yourself.”

“It’s very hard not to get distracted by the long publication lists that you see in other people’s bios. You have so many people around you that work overtime all the time, and you feel like, ‘Oh, is that something I should do? Am I doing enough?’ It distracts you from focusing on yourself and your own path — and that should be enough.”

“Always take some time off. There’s a terrible tendency in academia to always keep going. But you have to take your weekends. You have to take your vacation days. Go to a yoga class, read a book, start a new hobby, and I’m almost certain that you will have more energy and be more productive than the person who is working 24/7.”

What were the deciding factors for you to keep pursuing academia?
“It’s really the mix of various things that we do in our day to day. I feel like every single day is different. I’m almost certain that I will never get bored in this job. Some days you’re teaching. The next day you might focus on reading and writing. Then sometimes you have periods that you spend in the field. You organize conferences or workshops. You meet new people and very interesting people too. And you always keep learning. That’s why it can never really get boring.”

Any final wisdom that you want to impart?

“It’s important to celebrate the things that we achieve throughout our career. If you had a great day, if you managed to publish a paper, if you just reached your personal goal of writing two pages today … enjoy the little things.”

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Michael Camponovo

By Annie Liu, AAG Intern

Being the GIS Outreach Coordinator for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Geography and Sustainability Department , as well as having various “other duties as assigned,” Michael Camponovo approached this new position by defining what he thought outreach should mean and who to outreach to. Groups like incoming students, current students, geography professionals, and the public are all prime targets for conducting outreach to ensure the department’s success in recruiting and retaining students. He then needed to decipher what to communicate and how to build relationships with the communities in question and decided to do so, oddly enough, the lens of a business.

Michael’s most recent degree is an M.B.A. from the University of Tennessee (UT), so he “had to think about the department like a business, which is normally something you don’t want to hear in higher ed… but [he] actually found it a really enlightening and fun exercise.” He discovered that thinking about returns on investments for his time, effort, and energy delivered the best results for outreach.

First, Michael thought about the supply and demand of students—where were the students coming from and how many did the Geography and Sustainability Department need. After some trial and error, he found that the best use of his time was working with and recruiting students who are already enrolled at UT.

Michael then had to ask himself, “What am I selling and what’s the quality of the product?” The answer was clear.“ … What we’re selling is an education, and most students one way or the other want some sort of career once they come out of the program.”

By “selling” a geographic education, he needed to focus on post-graduation outcomes for students, so he spent a lot of time working with professional partners. Michael is heavily involved with the Tennessee Geographic Information Council (TNGIC), the Tennessee statewide GIS professional organization, where he serves on the board, organizes conferences, and heads committees. By being involved, he stays knowledgeable about the skills that students need to be taught to be hired while simultaneously building an extensive network, so he is able to recommend students to employers.

On top of being a GIS Outreach Coordinator, Michael also teaches GIS and the geography major capstone course for seniors.

Using Networks to (Re)Discover Geography

“I never thought of myself as a geographer. I had a career before what I do now, where I was a public school teacher, and it turned out that after a couple years of doing that, I decided it wasn’t a good fit for me and I wanted to go back to school and do something different. I had such an unpleasant time being a public school teacher that I was really desperate to find something that brought me happiness and joy.”

Michael was reminded that he liked his GIS classes during undergrad and that it brought him the joy he was looking for, so he reached back out to his professor who happened to be another active member of TNGIC for advice. Since he already had a master’s degree in education for teaching, he only had to obtain a GIS certificate to start working in the field.

Unfortunately, this was right at the start of the 2008 financial crisis, which meant that no one was hiring. Fortunately, he had an opportunity to move to New Mexico with his wife for her pharmacy program, and the University of New Mexico had a paid research assistantship for GIS where Michael realized he was more of a geographer and not just solely a GIS person.

The Power of Mentorship

Michael emphasized the influence of amazing mentors he’s had throughout his time in higher education that he wouldn’t have been introduced to otherwise. He may have two master’s degrees, but what prepared him the most for his current position was his experience as a research assistant at UNM and the mentors he had there.

“I had an amazing mentor, Karl Benedict at UNM, and he was the head of the Earth Data Analysis Center (EDAC). I started out doing work for him like writing metadata and coding and that sort of stuff. They liked what I was doing and they had an opportunity to hire me full time. And so I went to work for them and I had two more amazing mentors, Shirley Baros and Mike Ingalls, and they took me under their wing and coached me up from being a student with potential to being a geospatial advocate for the State [of New Mexico].”

Michael’s new responsibilities required him to communicate to non-GIS people that GIS is helpful with natural hazard mitigation. He says he gave 20 presentations the first year of working at the EDAC, and now he gets paid to talk to people.

What geographic knowledge do you need for your current position?

Being the GIS Outreach Coordinator, Michael seems to know, and needs to know, a little bit of everything about geography. Why? So he can reach the maximum number of people with various interests in geography. He also needs to know what the high-level trends for technical skills are in geography to ensure post-graduation success for students. An example of Michael’s success is the geography department at UTK using ArcGIS Online earlier than most other programs, leading to students learning about StoryMaps and Dashboards earlier as well.

“The thing that has served me the best through my whole career is I’ve got a really good foundational knowledge of geospatial concepts, and I’m really good at Googling things. Because I have the right vocabulary, that makes it easier and more efficient for me to Google things … and quickly find the information that I need.”

 

What is your Favorite part of the job?

Michael’s face lit up at the question. For him, this was an easy question.

“Getting to watch my students succeed. It’s very satisfying to look at and get to experience all the different ways my students are successful. I’m at the point now where I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing about seven years, that I go to the state GIS Conference, [and] my former students are there representing companies like in the business Expo area. The students that I had are now at the point where they’re the people promoting their company or their services. I’ve got students who go on and work for the State Department, doing work at embassies! How cool is it that? I got to interact with these students and help them along their path! So yeah, for me that’s easily the best part.”

Any advice for those starting out their careers (or having a career crisis) if they want to have a position like yours?

Michael Camponovo stands near the University of Tennessee Knoxville's information table during GIS Day 2019Michael is a big advocate of just going out there and talking to people! He recommends talking to people for those interested in any career ever. “The biggest thing is informational interviewing. Talk to people, find out what they do and find out if that’s a good fit for you.”
More specifically, to get a GIS Outreach Coordinator position at a large research university, Michael says, “You have to have a really awesome department head who thinks that this is a job that’s worthwhile to have.”

One also needs patience and empathy. “The last several years have taught us that you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. You never know what people are struggling with.”
For those interested in outreach, Michael says to stay curious and able to learn new things from different people. Also, as emphasized earlier, be someone who loves talking to people.
Closing out his interview, Michael quotes his favorite career consultant, Don Asher, author and public speaker, who says, “We all hear it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. [But] it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.”

Michael continues, “Because I know Annie, [that ]means that I can be an advocate for Annie when she’s not in the room to someone else. So I’m vouching for that person. I’m putting my credibility on the line by saying that this person could be a good fit for you, and you really need that. And you don’t get that unless you talk to people and meet people and put yourself out there.”

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Ross O’Ceallaigh

By Annie Liu, AAG Intern

Ross O’Ceallaigh, host of the Green Urbanist podcast, discusses amplifying green ideas and how that is an important step in fighting climate change. In High School, his favorite subject was geography, but he didn’t want to end up teaching geography after getting a degree. Thankfully, he found a course that offered him the chance to start exploring both planning and geography, which opened him up to the world of urban design and development. Ironically, he ended up becoming an educator in both his day job and podcast anyway!

We all know you run a very popular podcast [The Green Urbanist], but tell us some more about your day job and your responsibilities

My day job, which I do four days a week, is working as a Learning Program Manager at a nonprofit called Design South East, which is based in the Southeast of England. We exist to try and improve the quality of design and development and places in general across that region of the southeast of England…My role is running training programs and learning events for built environment practitioners like planners who work in local authorities so they can upskill in design, urban design, sustainability, and just whatever is like the latest planning reform that is happening, which we’re having a lot of the last couple of years in the UK basically.

A non-linear career path

I’ve been sort of having a bit of a squiggly career in that I went on to study urban design at a master’s level, and I got a job as a planner in a local authority working on very small-scale stuff in in the South of England. Then I moved into a job in London that was working for a big multidisciplinary practice and working on international projects. The two main projects I worked on in my year and a half were in Nigeria, and one of them was for a spatial plan for a city of 6 million people. I went from assessing people’s applications to change their windows on their house to working on this massive spatial plan and still being quite inexperienced. I went on to work for a nice small urban design consultancy called Urban Initiatives Studio and worked much more in the UK and Ireland and on projects with local authorities doing things like urban design strategies for town centers or for London boroughs so they could plan their growth and get the best results out of coordinating the development that was coming forward.

“I just thought I quite like speaking, I quite like doing podcasting and sort of teaching people; I wonder, is there a way I can get into that?”

How does geography play a role in your job?

I think having a joint geography and planning background is very useful in terms of understanding the big picture and the natural systems that influence planning and urban design.

How did you end up starting your podcast?

I think it’s a familiar story for many podcasters in that when the pandemic happens, we’re all stuck at home, we had loads of free time…Then lots of people thought, ‘Ah, I’m gonna start that podcast I’ve always wanted to.

Ross realized that the climate crisis is incredibly serious and that he and many people in the built environment sector were unprepared for the challenge. He decided to teach himself and read up on the topics of interest in sustainability, leading him to start a podcast to share the knowledge that he was learning and keep learning from expert interviews.

“The podcast is as much for my education as for anyone else’s, and it really has been a great opportunity to sort of open up a conversation with people that you wouldn’t necessarily have access to…”

In your podcast, how do you perceive the value and importance of geographic knowledge?

I think something that’s become really clear to me over the last two years of podcasting is that sustainability solutions are really geographically focused and that a sustainable approach to, say, architecture in London, will be different to Boston or Sydney or Lagos, Nigeria. I think that’s been such a frustration–that we try to find really blanket solutions and really broad solutions to things that actually should be really location specific. It comes down all sorts of things, like traditional knowledge systems and indigenous knowledge perspectives of people who have actually lived sustainably for thousands of years in a place. Through the processes of colonialism and globalization, that knowledge has been sort of swept aside. Now we’re looking back on it, and we need to relearn the sustainable ways that are specific to this place.

What do you think are the most important issues you discuss on your podcast? And how do you hope your audience reacts to the issues discussed?

I think the topics have shifted over the course of the three years I’ve done it. I started talking about mitigation and being like ‘Here’s what net zero means’, ‘Here’s how we can get to net zero’, and while that is still at the front of our mind and very important, I’ve sort of moved on to thinking, ‘OK climate change is here, how do we adapt.’ Climate adaptation, particularly in the built environment, is flying under the radar quite a lot. People talk about things like overheating, but I think [there are] profound changes that we need to do to adapt.

[I hope] to share more about transformative climate responses, such as urban rewilding, or sustainable co-housing—alternative methods of doing things that step outside the developer profit-seeking model.

“I hope that then inspires other people to see what other possibilities are out there, and then hopefully those possibilities can be implemented.”

What is your favorite part of your day job and the podcast?

I’m always learning and I’m always getting a chance to learn from people. When I run training events in my day job, I’m often bringing in the best speakers to talk about something they’re quite expert in and I get to sit there in the audience and learn from them for that moment as well. I think also getting feedback from people who come and say that was really helpful…That’s the gratification of being in an educational role.

I think with my podcast, my perspective has changed so much over the last three years just from all the people I’ve been able to talk to. I think that thing of like keeping an open mind and being open to saying like, “Whoa, like, you know, the way I saw the world is a bit different and actually I’m gonna sort of move forward with a different perspective on this.

What do your coworkers think about the podcast? Is it kind of a double life, are you pulling a Hannah Montana situation, or are they interested and involved?

I think it helped me get this job actually, because I was doing the podcast for about a year before I decided to change from my consulting job and then I decided to try something else. It’s actually been really useful because I have a lot of contacts that I can call on from the podcast to come and do events in my day job that I’m running… So, it’s definitely not a double life and I’m lucky in a sense that my employer and my colleagues have been very supportive of it because it has so many parallels and it supports the day job. I don’t think they worry that I’m getting distracted by it.

Would be what advice do you have for undergrads, grads and early career professionals interested in your day job…or starting a podcast?

[Regarding a podcast], I think the answer is to say just do it and you learn by doing it and start by recording a couple of episodes, and if you think they’re awful, you don’t have to publish them. The only way you get good at something is by doing it…like you need to get started scripting or interviewing people or just chatting with your friend with the microphones and that that will make it much easier over time.

I would honestly say that even if nobody listens to your podcast, it’s still worth doing because it’s really enjoyable, it’s really good fun and you’ll probably learn a lot doing it and you’ll learn skills that can then be transferred and that kind of thing.

[As for jobs in general,] I would say if you have the luxury, pick your employer wisely, and don’t be afraid to jump around jobs a little bit. If you have the option to try out a couple of different jobs that are very different in scale and very different in context. In your early career, I think that’s really, really useful to do actually and will give you a really wide perspective. Then, you can say after a couple years’ experience, “Actually, you know what, what I really like and what I’m really good at is this thing and I’m gonna now focus in on this a bit more.

Don’t be afraid of jumping in and doing a job that maybe you’re a bit unsure about with the knowledge that it won’t last forever if you don’t want it to.

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Program Profile: California State University Long Beach

Group photo of CSULB MSGISci students
Group photo taken by a drone of MSGISci students at the River Ridge Ranch field site (with Scott Winslow, UAV and GIS Lab Manger front left and Dr. Wechsler front 2nd from left).

AAG staff recently sat down for a virtual interview with California State University Long Beach (CSULB) faculty members Dr. Suzanne Wechsler, professor and department chair; Dr. Lily House-Peters, associate professor and undergraduate advisor; and Dr. Paul Laris, professor and former department chair. When asked how their department demonstrated the value and relevancy of geography, a theme quickly emerged — actions speak louder than words.  Everything the department does is exemplary of demonstrating the importance of geography.

The department is keen on community engagement that provides research and learning opportunities for both students and faculty, adapts their program to ever-evolving geospatial technology and industry standards, and emphasizes the importance of field experience in the coursework across the program’s various concentrations. It’s obvious that CSULB’s Department of Geography is demonstrating the value and relevancy of geography daily, not only to their students, but to their university colleagues and local community members as well.

“One of the things that’s kept us going and relevant is that we’re always trying something…we’re constantly trying out and innovating,” says Laris. His response reflects the overall spirit of a department where innovation is the norm. As Wechsler puts it, being nimble and responsive is what has fostered the program’s success.

Professor and student perform field work with coastal sage scrub.
Professor Laris gives student Alexandra Trujillo a few tips on how to use a quadrat to sample coastal sage scrub vegetation at the PVP Land Conservancy.

 

Student and professor perform fieldwork together.
Student Cannon Hanson and Professor Laris prep a site for line transect sampling of coastal sage scrub habitat.

 

Creating stand-out programs to foster student success

Suzanne Wechsler has carried on this tradition in her current role as department chair where her responsibilities include directing the M.S. in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) program. The M.S. was created 12 years ago when it was discovered that M.A. students were dropping out because they’d found work in the geospatial industry before they graduated. The problem was, that while students were obtaining excellent geotechnical skills within the M.A. program, they were taking internships that turned into the jobs they wanted, leaving them with little time or motivation, to complete their thesis. Wechsler and her colleagues realized there was a need to provide an analytical and application-based training for these students to fully prepare them for a career in the highly competitive geospatial industry, rather than the more theory-based approach of the M.A. program.

It’s about being agile and responding to the moment as best as possible, and you can’t do that without a core faculty that are dedicated and get along well…[and]…work together to…figure out how to address the moment.

—Suzanne Wechsler

The result is a vibrant graduate program which includes both a traditional Master of Arts (M.A.) and a Master of Science in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) that received an Honorable Mention for the AAG’s Program Excellence Award in 2019, among other ranked achievements. Students can expect a small, yet strongly networked cohort environment, research and publishing opportunities with faculty that focus on local and global issues, and lectures from community leaders, activists and industry professionals to inform on current best practices and skills.  Research partnerships are built into seminars and culminating activities provide students with opportunities to gain specialized skills and competencies, and, for example, to investigate how issues such as social and environmental justice play out in community settings.

Wechsler adds that equally important to the research experiences we facilitate is the network and community we strive to develop while students are in our program, and after they graduate. With over 200 MSGISci graduates 96% of whom are working in the geospatial field, these networking opportunities are an especially important component of our program. We hope that by building a sense of community while students are here encourages them to stay connected and serve as a network and resource for future graduates.

CSULB students performing GPS data collection
MSGISci students prepare GPS units for data collection at the River Ridge Ranch study site in Springville, CA.

 

How campus visibility maintains relevancy

The value of geography is enhanced by interdepartmental relationships within the university, according to Laris. Geography faculty often collaborate on cross-listed courses with other departments or stay on the university radar through the reception of grants including an NSF REU. Additionally, some programs such as the M.S. in Geographic Information Science generate income, attract students to the university, ultimately highlight the discipline’s relevancy.

“…we’re [the geography department] a good team player,” says Paul Laris. But it’s Suzanne Wechsler  who places the credit for this success. “That’s largely due to leadership,” she says. “Paul was instrumental in fighting for geography’s place within the college.”

Building this highly felt presence within the university is something that has taken time, but it has become a win-win for the department. At the end of the day, the department leadership’s dedication has benefitted the students, faculty, and long-lasting relevancy of geography.

Put me in, Coach!

The department’s overall success reflects its outstanding faculty. To be successful, both Laris and Wechsler emphasize the importance of creating an environment where faculty are enriched and able to succeed. Drawing on their experiences, the department chair is tasked with the difficult balancing act of distributing teaching loads at a University with a heavy teaching load (12 units per semester) combined with research and service expectations.

“I’m a sports guy,” Laris confesses with a smile. But with the confession comes an important analogy: “If your team’s going [to] do well, you’re only going to do as well as each of your players. If you put them in a position where they can do the best they can do, then maybe you’ll succeed in a place like Cal State Long Beach.”

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Natasha Rivers

Geography wasn’t the only major Natasha Rivers had in mind. In fact, it wasn’t even her first choice. “I originally thought I was going to study business or become a veterinarian,” she explains. It was a course on globalization that caught her attention, however, where for the first time she really learned about the core periphery of inequality and relative inequality in America. “I was interested in the people I was learning about, not just why they move and transform places that they inhabit, but the history of these people. What’s the language with the culture? What culture do they have to get rid of in order to assimilate?”

Understanding the interconnectedness of people and places has stuck with Natasha throughout her education and into her career. “It’s like, oh, okay, we’re all connected. It’s all relative,” she says. She continues on, emphasizing to this point. “But also, what can we do?”

How to create opportunity after getting a foot in the door

Natasha’s current position is the Sustainability and Measurement Director at BECU, a not-for-profit credit union, having worked her way up after originally being hired as a Program Manager. This original position initially entailed calculating the company’s carbon footprint, but that was where the environmental sustainability responsibilities ended. She quickly realized that there were so many other opportunities associated with the role, whether through expanded staff collaborations or providing members with resources. By asking questions, assessing what was needed and what was possible, while also not being afraid to make recommendations, Natasha elevated her role and presence within the organization.

How does geography play a role in your current position?

“Geography gave me a good idea of understanding people and places, of understanding the natural environment and the built environment. I’m thinking about all of these systems and how they play together with the economy. When thinking about our members, I asked for their demographics. Can we understand more about their race, education, background so that we can really deal with those different segments of the population that might need more resources or financial education?”

Using an understanding of spatial relationships to create effective initiatives in the workplace

What’s been a constant is the importance of understanding people in places. Natasha gives the example of Seattle, a place that has experienced a lot of change and growth in recent years. As a native of the city, she’s seen how the dot com and tech booms have impacted the region. “I grew up in Seattle. But Seattle’s unaffordable for most of the people in my family. So, a lot of them live in South King County.”

This diasporic movement impacts not just Natasha’s own family but the members at BECU. With her background in geography, she’s asking important questions about forced versus chosen migration and seeking answers about why and how people congregate in certain enclaves. By doing so she can better provide short- and long-term sustainability and financial health initiatives that educate members as well as staff on the connection between environmental sustainability and a financial institution.

What was your educational path? What did you study?

Natasha’s geography journey began at the University of Washington, where she double majored in Geography and American Ethnic Studies with a focus on Gender Studies. She continued on to get her PhD in Geography from University of California Los Angeles, where she built upon her interest in demography, followed by two post-docs, one at the University of Minnesota Population Center and the other at University of Washington.

“I had goals of just being an academic, publishing papers, teaching, going to conferences,” Natasha says. “That was my actual first goal. But there wasn’t a lot of opportunity at the time. This was 2010, so our country was still in the process of recovering from the Great Recession of 2008 and jobs were limited.”

If I get a Ph.D., I have to stay in academia? Right?

“So, I have this Ph.D. and it has not worked out for me and I need to figure out what my transferable skills are. I need to tap into my network and luckily my connections at the University of Washington introduced me to someone at the Seattle School District. They had just opened a new role, a Demographer role, and that was exactly my track in undergrad, grad, and my postdoc as well.”

But moving into industry from a perceived career in academia is a difficult transition. “I had to accept that and then adjust,” says Natasha. “That was the biggest adjustment: it was realizing I’m not going to have this current path, so what else is out there for me.”

How does one transition out of academia and into industry?

The key to transitioning out of academia was investing in her own professional development. Natasha had been networking for years with others in her community, from volunteering on boards to working with nonprofits, and she learned how to market herself in a non-academic way by speaking their language. Humility also played a big role in this transition. “I think a lot of times people with PhDs might go into industry and think they should be director right away or VP because of what they’ve achieved in the academic space. But I think it’s humbling to go in as a project or program manager and work your way up.”

What is your favorite part about where you work and what you do currently?

In Natasha’s current role, her favorite aspect of the job is getting to be curious and innovative. “There was no blueprint, this role was the first of its kind,” she explains. “I’m trusted to create these initiatives and do a lot of research, see what other people are doing.”

How Natasha came to work at BECU is a valuable lesson for all of us. Her previous position as a Demographer with the Seattle School District offered no opportunity for growth, and while it served her for a while, there came a time when she felt like she needed to do something more.

“A valued member of my expanded network had an opening at BECU and she had opened the role of Sustainability and Measurement,” Natasha says. “I didn’t think a financial institution would need someone thinking about the environment or sustainability. I could totally do that! So, I went for it, and I got the job.”

How does geography and its components impact not just your professional life, but your personal life?

Geography is more than a profession for Natasha, it factors into her day-to-day life as well. “There’s always the question of why was this made, or where? Where is this coming from? There are different languages being spoken here. I wonder where they came from, or what’s their journey to the U.S. It keeps me alert. It keeps me connected. It keeps me curious.”

One example came from a recent snowstorm in the Seattle area earlier this year. “Our trash wasn’t picked up for two weeks and the trash guys went on strike. So, we got these automated calls about where you can drop your trash off, but most people didn’t know where it was, even though it might be a block or two blocks from their house. Once your trash is picked up, you don’t think about it. You don’t think about where it’s going or how it’s taken care of. You just put your bin out. But when you have to take your bin TO the trash, you see all the trash there.

“I think that is what is so fascinating to me, that there are two types of people: ones that ask questions and people who don’t. Some people just want their trash picked up. But there’s others that think about the impact on the environment or how their trash is being disposed of.”

What advice do you have for geography students and early career professionals?

“Learn a lot from people, learn what you can. Don’t have such a strict view of your life, or what your career is going to look like. Be open. Keep your heart open as well. This life does surprise you, and there’s new roles that will fit exactly what you’re looking for.

“I do think that geography is relevant today, just as it was yesterday, and will be, so don’t be discouraged. There’s so much to do, so much work to be done.”

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Program Profile: Lakeland Community College’s Geography and Geospatial Technology Program

Photo of geography students receiving instruction on UAS operation during a class lab. Credit: Bobby Oliver
Geography students receive instruction on UAS operation during a class lab. Credit: Bobby Oliver

“Keeping up with technological change in the industry is key to our program,” explains Bobby Oliver, M.A., GISP professor and department chair for the Geography and Geospatial Technology program at Lakeland Community College (LCC) in Kirtland, Ohio. “We’re constantly updating and revising our curriculum to meet all of the changing needs, to ensure our students have access to the most current and advanced geospatial technologies out there.”

At LCC, keeping pace with the geospatial industry is essential to ensure the success of the hundreds of students who enroll in the Geography and Geospatial Technology program. Not only do Oliver and the LCC faculty accomplish this goal, but they do it well. In 2020, the program was recognized with the AAG Award for Associates Program Excellence. We asked Oliver what it was that made them stand out from the rest and her response was threefold: service-learning opportunities, a community engagement focus, and a highly connected professional network.

Photo of students at Lakeland Community College participating in an introductory geography class; by Bobby Oliver
Students at Lakeland Community College participate in an introductory geography class. Credit: Bobby Oliver

 

Community-oriented learning as a pathway to excellence

Since the program’s inception in 2011, LCC geography students have completed service-learning projects with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the City of Euclid’s Shore Cultural Center, and many other Cleveland-area nonprofit organizations. In response, these projects have often translated into internship opportunities for students.

We do a lot of community and college-wide engagement and make it a goal to create service-learning projects for students. We require our students to go out and be part of professional organizations within the community.

—Bobby Oliver

The involvement of LCC students within the local Cleveland community facilitates a symbiotic relationship centered around the value of a geographic education. For Oliver, this is a key component to the program. It enables students to apply their growing knowledge and skills in the real world while also building connections and bringing awareness to organizations that may not have previously understood the value of geography.

Finding success through championing the students and championing the program

Program faculty have also taken a proactive, integrative approach to teaching students about how the skills they’re learning in the classroom translate to professional careers, something geography students often aren’t aware of. Internships with local employers, job shadowing, alumni engagement, and professional meetings are well engrained elements of the program. “We have what’s called a career service checklist our students go through within each one of the courses in their program,” explains Oliver. “All of these things have helped build their job search skills for when they hit the job market.”

Developing and maintaining relationships with local professionals working in geography, GIS, and other related professions has been critical to the program’s success. Many of these professionals are on the program’s advisory board, which has strong and diverse representation from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. This has the added benefit of ensuring that students learn on the latest software platforms used by industry professionals.

GIS poster project by Lakeland Community College Geography student Caroline Petersen on Flow Map Analysis of Cambodian Refugee Migration, 1976-1995
GIS project by Lakeland Community College Geography student Caroline Petersen on Flow Map Analysis of Cambodian Refugee Migration, 1971-1995

 

How increased visibility is essential to program viability

As with many geography programs, maintaining strong enrollments is the foremost challenge the program faces, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining students. However, Oliver and other program leaders have developed innovative solutions to attracting students, by exploring opportunities with other departments on campus, leveraging a dual enrollment program with area high schools, and making ongoing efforts to increase the program’s visibility on campus and in the community.

For our program to be successful, we have to make sure that people see what we’re doing, and how it impacts our community. Making sure the campus is aware that we’re here and [that] what we do is very essential—especially when it comes to [LCC’s] enrollments and long-term viability.

—Bobby Oliver

 

Video of LCC alumni Caroline Peterson sharing her experience in the LCC GIS program and how she uses those skills in her career.

An annual GIS Day event, Women in GIS luncheons, presentations to the Math Club and Model U.N., and collaborative projects with other departments across campus have all helped to highlight the program’s value. “We’re really trying to get the students to see how our community and region use GIS, and how geographic and geospatial skills are used in real jobs,” says Oliver. “These are the things that I feel really put us ahead, for a two-year program.”

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Program Profile: Salisbury University – GIS

Photo of Michael Scott
Michael Scott

GIS has been taught at Salisbury University since at least the early nineties, says Dr. Michael Scott, a graduate of the Department of Geography and Geosciences and now a professor in the department and dean of the Henson School of Science and Technology. Continuing the success of their GIS program, in 2007, the department expanded into graduate education with their M.S. in GIS Management (MSGISM).   

Photo of Andrea Presotto
Andrea Presotto

“We realized that our students were doing very well in terms of finding employment and working in the field,” said Dr. Andrea Presotto, director of the MSGISM. “But the organizations they worked for were not particularly strategic about managing their GIS implementations.”   

The new M.S. program was conceived as a combination MBA and GIS degree, to better equip students with the skillsets necessary to become not only effective GIS practitioners, but also address this gap in data management and become leaders in public administration, grant writing, enterprise operations management, and a host of other skills beyond the technical level. This outside-the-box thinking and response to employment realities have elevated the program to one of the most respected departments on campus.  

A Regional Approach

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, agriculture, tourism, fisheries, residential and commercial development all face challenges in response to increasing climate change. The Department of Geography and Geosciences at Salisbury University has positioned itself as a big part of the solution for the communities in the region. In 2004, department faculty formed the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative (ESRGC), which Dr. Scott directs, to help organize the region’s small towns to pool their resources for much-needed GIS project support.    

“One small town doesn’t have the ability for a GIS staff to do data collection and analysis. If you put seven or eight little towns together, suddenly there are enough resources to hire somebody to actually get that done,” explains Scott.    

[Our students] are able to get this very intensive, on-the-job experience, but the only way that works, of course, is the ESRGC has to know that the quality of the students getting GIS education coming out of the department is great, because they’re going to put them right to work.”

—Michael Scott

An outreach unit of Salisbury University and joint effort between a collection of Maryland Eastern Shore regional councils and the university, the ESRGC has grown to include 10 full-time staff, nine of whom are alumni of the department. In good years, Scott estimates that the cooperative hires anywhere from 25 to 30 interns from the department, where they acquire the invaluable real-world experiences and skills needed to move directly into professional GIS positions, even before they graduate.  

“[Our students] are able to get this very intensive, on-the-job experience,” Salisbury University’s Dr. Michael Scott explains, “but the only way that works, of course, is the ESRGC has to know that the quality of the students getting GIS education coming out of the department is great, because they’re going to put them right to work.”

Photo of students in a Salisbury University GIS class demonstrating mapping on their computers
Photo courtesy Salisbury University

If you build it, they will come…

Students and alumni of the Department of Geography and Geosciences have earned an excellent reputation throughout the region, a credit to the dedication of the department’s faculty, and their student-centered approach. As Dr. Art Lembo, a professor in the department and Technical Director of the ESRGC explains, this starts with the physical building itself:   

“We requested the faculty offices be located in an off-hallway suite that allows our doors to be open all the time, so the students can better interact with the faculty. We made structural changes to accommodate better interaction, because it’s just in our DNA to give the students this kind of experience.”  

It trickles into [our students] bringing their friends, who can become majors as well.”

—Dr. Andrea Presotto

Dr. Dan Harris, a professor and chair of the department, notes that unlike other academic buildings on campus, which typically close at midnight, the Geography and Geosciences faculty years ago made a special request to the president of the university to allow the department lab to remain open 24 hours to provide students with the opportunity to be in the building at any time. This level of attention to detail concerning the physical learning space is representative of the student-first, innovative thinking that has set the program apart.    

“It trickles into [our students] bringing their friends, who can become majors as well,” Dr. Andrea Presotto, Geography and Geosciences professor at Salisbury University.   

Photo of Dan Harris
Dan Harris

“We have faculty who are really good at getting [undergraduate students] in for field courses, and we embed field experiences in their classes. It’s really important to show the students that it’s not just a discipline where we come in and lecture in a classroom, and you walk away and read a textbook. We actually want them to get out and see it,” says Dr. Dan Harris, department chair.

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Keaton Shennan

Education: MS in Geographic Information Science (San Diego State University), BS in Architecture (University of Colorado Denver)

The following profile was compiled by Jessica Embury (San Diego State University) for the Encoding Geography initiative. To learn more, visit: https://www.ncrge.org/encoding-geography/


Please describe your job, employer, and the primary tasks that you perform in your position. 

I am currently a GIS web developer for a mid-sized engineering firm of about 600 people that has offices in Minnesota, Texas, and Colorado. My primary tasks are geospatial scripting for various locations and tracking different types of assets, like cranes and street sweepers. I also work on web mapping applications that are generally used by cities and counties to manage tax data, parcel data, or stormwater information. I work on other applications for the oil and gas industry, like helping manage location audits and tracking different types of surveys on job sites throughout Texas.   

Previously, I’ve worked on EPA projects, like a common operating picture, which was essentially an emergency response platform. It had various assets and information brought into it regarding wildfires and other things. I’ve also worked on geospatial scripting for generating time enabled smoke imagery mosaics where I took cams and files from the Forest Service’s Blue Sky platform and translated that into a time enabled hosted and managed service. 

Other projects I’ve worked on were Native American tribal nations software, like central data management systems for managing water quality, collecting surveys from research scientists, and managing environmental cleanup. 

What is your educational background? How did you initially discover geocomputation and why did you ultimately choose a career that uses geography and computer science? 

My bachelor’s degree is in architecture and that’s where I was first introduced to GIS, in a natural hazards course. It’s how I got interested in wildfires and learning about GIS and what I could do with it. I also took an architectural cartography course which covered using GIS data to visualize changes in Denver, where I went to school.  

After working in architecture for a couple years, I just didn’t enjoy it and I always loved geography so I was hoping I could use some of my experience regarding planning, knowledge of fire, and building codes and somehow apply GIS to work with wildfires. Then, I completed my masters at San Diego State University and did my thesis on geovisualization and descriptive analysis of landscape level wildfire behavior using repeat pass airborne thermal imagery.  

During that time, I developed web applications for visualizing different attributes of landscapes and wildfire behaviors, such as reduced spread. I also did a descriptive analysis and worked on a couple other projects using GIS. 

I ultimately chose a career in geocomputation because I really liked the programming side of it. I thought it was an interesting and powerful skill set for being able to work with GIS data that not a lot of people have. I felt it also helped to have programming skills when I graduated and got into the job market. 

Is GIS usage widespread in architecture education and the industry? 

No, it is primarily used by planners but not really in architecture. If you work with site plans for master planning communities then you might get a little more experience. I worked in multifamily architecture so I got some experience using GIS to edit line work for a community master plan in Colorado, but that was the extent of it. Most architects I’ve met never use GIS. They do a lot of 3D modeling and data information modeling, but that’s about it.  

When you think about geography, what specific background knowledge and conceptual ideas are important and useful to know? 

Something that I feel is really under-represented in geographic education is learning how to work with coordinate systems and geographic versus projected coordinate systems. I run into a lot of issues in my job where people aren’t familiar with those concepts and then they don’t understand why certain tools aren’t working or what data processes are happening.  

Working with different data types and understanding how a database is structured is really helpful, but that’s more specific to a development role. Also, being familiar with common tools and processes for editing vector data and evaluating the accuracy of GPS data. I think having familiarity with GIS and data standards are the most important for a geospatial developer.  

When thinking about computer science, what specific background knowledge and conceptual ideas do you think are important and useful to know? 

For a web GIS developer, understanding how websites work is important,  like what happens when you type in a URL and how data is tasked between different services. For example, if you have a GIS server instance, how do you get data from that? A broad level of knowing how a REST API works is really important and critical for using geospatial data in websites. Also, having a general understanding of relational databases and becoming comfortable with certain programming languages are big skills.  

What procedural knowledge do you think is important and useful to know, from either geography or computer science? 

From geography, or the computer science side of geography, I think it’s really important to be familiar with Esri products like ArcGIS Pro or ArcDesktop, because those are widely used, especially in cities and municipalities. Then, understanding what Esri portal and enterprise are and how to use ArcGIS Online. Even as a developer, I use those tools all the time.  

Getting a little more into the computer science part, it is important to know how to use ArcPy and the ArcGIS Python API, as well as open source software. I haven’t used QGIS recently but I think that’s a good one to learn if you don’t have access to other GIS. Then, being familiar with libraries such as GDAL and OGR for Python is really helpful. Also, knowing how to set up a PostGIS database is a specific skill that’s really helpful for the computer science part. I mainly work with Javascript, Typescript, Python, a little bit of C# (C-Sharp).  

With web development, I also use HTML and CSS. If you’re going to be a web developer, you need to know the basics of vanilla JavaScript, which is what they call using JavaScript without a framework. Understanding how to make a call to a REST endpoint and how to get data from a host or feature service is really important. Generally understanding the life cycle, like a promise in JavaScript is important, so if you get data you’re leaving that response. Then understanding the DOM, the document object model, and how that works. Essentially, how is an html page structured and then, depending on what resources you use, knowing a rest API and how that works. You could also look into a soap API which uses xml. I did run into that a little bit, especially larger scale stuff. We essentially had a big repository for data that was used by Federal Government employees and now it’s translated from xml. So that’s the specific programs stuff.  

Then, for Python, you should know some of the big geospatial libraries and know when it’s appropriate to use certain things and that just takes time. Then, if you want to get a job, it’s helpful to know a framework and have something that you’ve built, have examples of work that you’ve done, no matter how small they are, but have examples of a small portfolio and if you can explain what’s happening behind the scenes – then that’s pretty critical to getting a job in the field. 

What is an example of a social, economic, environmental or other issue that you recently investigated in a project at work? 

We work mostly with environmental issues. I’m currently working on a stormwater asset management program so it uses some hydrological modeling that’s above my head, but essentially it’s a program which can forecast when stormwater basins and ponds will need maintenance, so preserving stormwater ponds in different communities throughout Minnesota.  

Another project I worked on is the EPA common operating picture, and for that I worked on a few different widgets and a web map and one of them, for environmental data, was that smoke mosaic data. We set up a script to run every 24 hours and update daily [to] provide information on particle density for smoke over California, Nevada, and a couple other states in the southwest US. Another component of that was tracking active fire perimeters and if there were active fire parameters within 10 miles of an EPA facility, [then] that would notify people. 

What kind of geographic or computational questions did you ask and think about during your project? 

I’ll talk about the smoke data because that’s really interconnected with air quality, which can be interconnected to a lot of other social and environmental issues related to people who are disproportionately affected by that. The question is, from a technical standpoint, how do we transform these cams and the files into something that’s useful and time-enabled? Then, how do we convey that knowledge to somebody who doesn’t have a GIS background? And how can we make it useful at the scale? So the scale of this data is multiple states, the lower 48 states of the contiguous U.S..  

Knowing how to resample that imagery was important, so how do we make sure that it’s an appropriate scale and spatial resolution for the task at hand? Then, that kind of blended into programming, so this would be kind of a classic geospatial scripting – You’re transforming the data, so you first need to get the data, so you make a request to that site and get the data, unzip it, then you need to organize it. For that dataset we had times in each image file name, so you could just use Python to pull out the dates, and then you need to transform it into the correct projection. You need to reproject those rasters and then, once you do that, you can look at the different types of resampling that you can do. Then, once you have all your data finished and you finished the processing of your data, you then need to work on the final product. So you kind of have these iterative steps to clean the data, get it in a format you want, and make sure it’s displaying correctly at an appropriate spatial resolution or appropriate coordinate system. 

And then, once that’s done, you can do the final task, which is essentially creating an image service that you can just put in a web app that has time enabled on it, which is an Esri specific thing, because if you enable time on this image layer, then you can use all these different filtering tools to visualize the data. 

What types of data did you acquire to support your project? If possible, please identify up to three data sets you utilize the most. 

So we used the BlueSky daily runs from the WebSky platform from the United States Forest Service, which is a research model that they generate for different regions in the U.S.. 

https://tools.airfire.org/websky/v2/#status  

For the EPA, we used a couple different datasets. I don’t know how much I can talk about that, but we did use the classic U.S. main fire perimeter data: the NIFC current wildfire perimeters data set. Currently, we use a lot of parcel tax data, so that’s more specific to city and county level, but I would say we work with that the most. 

What type of content knowledge and skills did you use to evaluate, process, and analyze the data that you gathered for your project? 

For the remote sensing part of that project, it was about understanding the different types of interpolation, such as nearest neighbor, and resampling methods for raster data. Also, being able to identify your destination coordinate system and apply any projections that you need.  

Content knowledge and skills specifically for programming would be understanding how to use Open Source  geoproducts, so in that case it was GDAL to work with raster data. Then principles for more general types of skills like Python programming and using Jupyter notebooks or ArcGIS notebooks to schedule a task to run every 24 hours to get new data and republish the image service. 

As a developer, I get a lot of hard skills but the soft skills can be ignored a little bit. The most important thing I’ve learned is being able to explain to somebody why something is important if they don’t have a background in GIS and being able to distill the work you’re doing and provide a high level summary. That’s something we have to do all the time. An example of this would be when I built a continuous integration continuous development pipeline for a client. What this does is it builds their application tests and it deploys it to wherever they want automatically. So I had to be able to distill this really technical process of backing up and restoring databases and running certain types of integration tests to a client that doesn’t really have a strong computer science background and I’m just a GIS technician. That was for a Tribal Nations organization. So how you distill that knowledge upwards and explain what you’re doing and why it’s meaningful is the most important part of this process. 

How did you apply geography and computer science to communicate the results of your project? Do you have a recent product or publication that you can share as an example? 

I primarily use web applications. I don’t usually use maps very often, unless they’re embedded in a web application. So I do a lot of mapping applications where geovisualization is an important part of that.   

How to display data in a meaningful way is always important, even at city levels, if they have huge data sets, like a lot of utility data sets and storm water and sewer and parcel. A lot of them have tons of data, so how do you display that data in a way that doesn’t get super cluttered or confusing? 

For a recent product, we have a public facing web page. This is another product for oil and gas. There is a video on this website that does a little walkthrough: 

https://www.wsbeng.com/expertise/technology/solutions/datafi/ 

WSB Engineering and Innovate! Inc. are the two companies I’ve worked for. I wanted to work in-person. I think it is important to have that in-person mentorship as a developer. 

Reflecting on your work, how does it align with your personal values and your community or civic interests? 

I’ve been able to explore some environmental issues that generally align well with my personal values. I feel like I get to make a positive impact, and even with fields and sectors of oil and gas that I wouldn’t necessarily see myself working in, I like that I get to help with environmental compliance and making sure that field workers are safe and sticking to appropriate procedures.  

I really enjoyed the work I did for the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s probably been the highlight so far – being able to work for an agency that I admire. Being able to work with the Forest Service is great too. Most of my work is related to environmental issues, which I’m passionate about, but it would also be great to use this data for other civic or social justice projects to see how GIS data can be useful for that.  


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. 2031418, 2031407, and 2031380 (Collaborative Research: Encoding Geography – Scaling up an RPP to achieve inclusive geocomputational education). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation 

 

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Tom Paper

Education: B.A. in Economics (Williams College), M.B.A. in General Management (Stanford University)

The following includes an interview conducted with two colleagues at Webster Pacific. Although the conversation with both Tom Paper and William Blomstedt is included below, a duplicate profile is also available for William Blomstedt, who is GIS Expert and Project Manager at Webster Pacific.

It was compiled by Jessica Embury (San Diego State University) for the Encoding Geography initiative. To learn more, visit: https://www.ncrge.org/encoding-geography/


Please describe your job, employer, and the primary tasks that you perform in your position. 

Tom Paper (TP): Our company is Webster Pacific and we provide analytical consulting services. We’ve been in business for almost 20 years and our clients are in a wide range of industries. I used to be a strategy consultant at Bain and Company a long time ago.   

We use tools like Python, ArcGIS, Tableau/PowerBI, CRM/ERP, Cloud Databases, and SQL Server to perform coding, geo-analysis, marketing analytics, web scraping/research, interviewing, and financial analysis. I can’t use any of these programs but I understand the logic of all the work that we do, much of which is geocomputational. 

William, do you want to add anything? You have a background in geoscience. 

William Blomstedt (WB): I studied geography as an undergrad and then I did a master’s course in GIS so I came to the field that way. Tom, geospatially, you only started more recently doing geospatial stuff? The work evolved to geospatial analysis. 

TP: That’s right, seven years ago, one of our clients – a private school based in Manhattan – wanted to open up schools in cities all over the world and asked us to help them analyze cities as opportunities for locating new schools. And that’s what launched us. We evolved our geospatial capabilities for this particular client to help other clients and other schools think geospatially about new locations. We just helped a preschool in Washington DC and we also helped a private school think about why a location in San Francisco had not been performing as well. 

What is your educational background and how did you initially discover geocomputation and ultimately choose a career using geography and computer science? 

TP: My background was liberal arts. I studied economics and environmental studies at Williams and so I don’t know whether the career chose me or if I chose the career. It feels a little bit like it chose me. I think for William – he chose it, he was more curious geospatially early on.  

In the last five years, pretty much since we started geospatial analytics, I got interested in antique maps and that process of discovery. I think there’s a very real thread between our work and the kind of work that people did to think about exploration. For example, I have a map of California as an island from the 17th century. I think it was George Box who said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Examples of things being wrong fascinate me because we see that every day, or we know our models are wrong, but the question is whether they are helpful. 

When thinking about geography, what specific background knowledge and conceptual ideas do you think are important and useful? 

TP: I think that the ability to think in the weeds and then to think about the forest is the most important skill that we have. To be able to go back and forth between details and the big picture. I don’t have a geographic education but I think that ability is critical to what we do every day.  

WB: When I was choosing to go to school to pursue geography, someone told me that you could take a GIS course that just teaches you how to use the program and do GIS. However, they advised me to go to a course where you do a thesis where you have to solve a problem, and GIS is the tool. Instead of just learning the tool, you need to use the tool to do something with it and think about the big picture, rather than just doing geographical analysis. 

When thinking about computer science, what specific background knowledge and conceptual ideas do you think are important and useful? 

TP: I think the willingness to accept that you don’t know everything and that there are things that we still learn. Repeatedly, we learn things and how to do things that we didn’t know before, so I think the willingness to accept that you don’t know everything is critically important.  

Can you mention any procedural knowledge that you think is particularly useful from the standpoint of either geography or computer science? 

TP: We see geography and computer science, or geospatial, like they’re melded together: geography and computer science and our use of programs.  

We use Excel and Google Sheets all the time because it’s how we get into the details and also get to the big picture. Now we’ve had a lot of young people join our firm and want to use Python instead of Excel. I’m not sure I would say that I have embraced it, but I can see the power of it. No matter how programmatic they get, it is important that our team understands how to come back to the larger questions and more conceptual ways of displaying what we’re doing.  

We’re fortunate in the sense that we are driven by our client and their strategy. Every client has a different definition of what is a customer to them and their market position. The priorities are the activities that support that market position and determine who is a customer, and how to spatially define a customer in a particular space. We often think about time. We do find that mileage is not good because a mile in New York City and a mile in Los Angeles are very different due to the time it takes people to get to and from things.  

What’s an example of a social, economic, environmental or other issue that you recently investigated in a project? 

TP: Our client wanted to find a location within a metropolitan area and the customers who would go to their store. Customers are only willing to travel so far. So we wanted to locate in a place where there’s more demand than competing supply for this company. We created a map to show demand and supply in the market. The basic point was to figure out where there’s more demand than supply. Geospatially, where does that exist? We took the demand and subtracted out the supply to get our answer. If all you were doing was looking at the demand, you’d get an answer that looks very different.  

What kind of questions did you ask and think about during this project? 

WB: It’s all about location, place, and interconnection. If we need to write a code or an algorithm, we do it to either iterate faster or to make a model. For a simple supply model, we can say the supply is all in one point. In a more complex model, we will say the supply is not exactly in that point but it’s around that point (e.g. within 10 minutes) and so we have to build a model which spreads that supply out and then computationally figure out where all the supply is.  

What types of data did you acquire to support your project, and are you able to identify up to three data sets that you use frequently? 

TP: We use Census data a lot.  

WB: American Community Survey. 

TP: We use lists of schools or stores on the web. Our client will also have data about their customers and information that we will integrate into our analysis.   

But Census data is by far the biggest one. For the census data, we deal with shapefiles. Sometimes we get data by Block Group, Census Tract, county, or something else. Then, we have to turn that data into data that meshes with us.   

We use road network data sometimes. We used to build our own road networks, and now we use outside services who have data about traffic speeds. Road networks are really important to conceptualize something timewise. Sometimes we’ve thought about not just drive time but walk time or subway time. We analyzed some things in Tokyo once and we had to make a road network, if you will, that was based upon subway travel times. 

What types of content knowledge and skills did you use to evaluate, process, and analyze the data you gathered for your project? 

TP: I have a whole presentation, called the consulting toolkit, about the kinds of thinking that we have to go through to work successfully. People don’t necessarily know all the data that they’re going to need and they don’t necessarily have all the skills to solve a problem, so being able to pick things up quickly is really important.  

We’ve talked in our firm about letting the data guide you and being careful to let the data explain to you what it says. Our customers have questions and we need to be careful to not over interpret the data or over explain the data.   

We always have to look at the work that we’ve done and ask whether it makes sense. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense because we made a mistake. There are so many calculations involved in what we do, so we need to go back and see if we made a mistake. For example, William and I just got through with a particular city and there was a pocket of demand close to the core area. It didn’t make sense to us that it would exist there, so we went back and checked the calculations and discovered that there was a river creating a barrier. So, in this case, there was a geospatial reason.   

How did you apply geography and computer science to communicate the results of your project?  

Webster Pacific map showing a retail fashion client a comparison of the stores in which they and their competitors are located.

TP: This map is for a retail fashion company. They sell their products to wholesalers who resell the product to consumers. They wanted to know which stores (wholesalers) they should sell their product to, so we found out where the competitors were located. 

That’s the coloration of the dots. Every dot is a store and the reddest dots have the most competitors located inside of them. The black circle around the dots indicate stores where our client is located. Our client was in only one store where there were a whole bunch of competitors and they were in a lot of stores with smaller numbers of competitors. So maybe the client should be in the other red dots, whereas we might not want to be in these green stores as much. 

So this is an example about displaying our results. We try to think about the ease with which somebody who knows nothing about this could understand it. How hard are we making the viewer work to understand our results and how much mental effort do they have to expend? That’s an information design problem. It’s a bit of an art and a science. The best presentations are the ones that take the least effort to understand while still projecting the appropriate amount of complexity. You have to get the answer across with the least amount of work for the viewer. 

Reflecting on your work, how does it align with personal values and community or civic interests? 

TP: We work for clients who want to serve their customers and make money, and I appreciate helping our clients and being paid for doing that work. Are we saving the world with our work? Probably not, but we are supporting ourselves, our families, and our clients. There are certain clients that I wouldn’t work for because their values don’t align with ours.  

I feel good about our work. We have a great team that appreciates the adventure, discovery, and services that we give to our clients. We have school clients and we’re proud of helping them do a better job of educating their students.  

We get paid to do this really interesting work. I tell people I don’t travel around the world physically, but I do in my brain. We get to discover things and we learn – and that is part of the great wonder and joy of this work. We get to learn all the time. There are all sorts of discoveries happening in these realms that I think equate back to when these people were making antique maps and discovering the shape of California. We’re discovering the shape of things that exist. Where is our demand? Where are our competitors? Where should we go? Where should we advertise? So there’s discovery, and that’s fun. 


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. 2031418, 2031407, and 2031380 (Collaborative Research: Encoding Geography – Scaling up an RPP to achieve inclusive geocomputational education). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation 

 

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