Wayfinding: A Map to Inspire Local Journeys 

Geography and urban planning Ph.D. student Nick Mellis shows his walking and transit map of Worcester, Mass.
Geography and urban planning Ph.D. student Nick Mellis shows his walking and transit map of Worcester, Mass.

Grad Student Nick Mellis’s pocket map of Worcester is a passion project

Photo of Nick MellisWhen Nick Mellis was eight years old, he memorized the New York City subway map. He’s been a map and transit enthusiast ever since, majoring in geography as an undergrad at Clark University, and going on to pursue graduate studies in community and urban planning, also at Clark.

In 2020, Mellis launched a project to acquaint his fellow “Clarkies” with the transit system, sights, and open spaces of the university’s home of Worcester, Massachusetts. Mellis researched the best practices of tourism maps, hosted community discussions — and walked, biked, and rode the city’s trains and buses — a lot. The result is a map showing transit routes on one side, recreation and outdoor areas on the other — an especially welcome tool for respite from studies during the pandemic.

“I go on really long walks. It’s my way to de-stress,” Mellis told ClarkNow. “Part of the reason that I wanted to go to all the trails on the map was because I like exploring new places around the city.”

He also sees the project’s response to climate change, encouraging people to seek outdoor locations via public transportation. He observed that many of the students at Clark don’t know where green spaces are, nor how to access them:

A way to get more people around the city and on the bus is to make a map.

Mellis worked with a map printer in Denver to publish 2,500 copies of the map, which are available across campus.


Read more about Nick Mellis’s work at ClarkNow.

Find out about AAG’s network of graduate students at the Graduate Students Affinity Group

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Suparna Das

Education: Ph.D. in Geography (University of Utah), M.A. in Regional Planning and Development (Jawaharlal Nehru University), B.S. in Geography (University of Calcutta) 

The following profile was compiled by Brendan Vander Weil (Texas State University) for the Encoding Geography initiative. To learn more, visit: http://www.ncrge.org/encoding-geography/


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

I’m currently responsible for supervising an expanding group of talented statisticians, behavioral health scientists, data analysts and epidemiologists. Together we manage data collection efforts, disseminate various products (reports, publications, briefings, policy documents) and advise behavioral health policies for the administration. The Treatment Services Branch (TSB) is responsible for three major behavioral health data collection and surveillance systems: Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) and Behavioral Health Information Surveillance Systems (BHSIS) and provide all statistical support for Buprenorphine Waiver Notification Systems (BWNS).  

Before joining SAMHSA in March 2021, for close to seven years I was working as the statistician and viral hepatitis epidemiologist for DC Department of Health (DOH). I was also part of the COVID-19 Task force for DC from 2020–2021. 

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? 

Geo-computation, from my understanding, is the “art and science of solving complex geographical (spatial) problems through computation” (Source unknown). I want to take this opportunity to iterate that Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Geographical Information Sciences (GISc) are NOT interchangeable. I strongly believe that we as geographers can do a lot more than make maps. This belief has been the central tenet of my career in public service. We can assist decision-making in the most scientific method with our understanding of space and spatial changes over time.   

As a graduate student in India (Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)) and the U.S. (University of Utah), I was lucky to have received extensive training as a spatial scientist and demographer. This expanded my understanding of population sciences and geo-computation, which I apply every day in my position to improve health outcomes for people. 

What is an example of applying geography concepts and skills in order to analyze and solve problems in your work? 

I have several projects that are currently being implemented where I am using geo-computational methodologies, but we will have to wait for them to be released through SAMHSA. For me, it is impossible to resolve mental health and substance abuse disparities and encourage health equity without spatial thinking and geo-computation. SAMHSA (specially CBHSQ) understands that and encourages discussion on applying geo-computation while also supporting and encouraging researchers to use https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/ for analytical and geo-computational purposes, among many other projects.  

From my previous position at DC DOH, where I spent close to seven years, I was able to implement several geo-computational projects. I published as much as I could to make sure people knew about administrative data collection and the impact of geo-computation in policy. One project example is DC’s effort to End the HIV Epidemic (EHE).  

I was proud to have been an integral part of the EHE implementation with the DC DOH, which has achieved the first of its 90/90/90 goals (https://www.dcendshiv.org/) of 90% of people living with HIV being aware of their HIV status (and now aiming for 95%). We were committed to implementing evidence-based policies to improve care for people living with HIV and create access to prevention and tools to stop new infections.   

I used spatial analysis to find high-risk areas that needed immediate attention, resource re-allocation, and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to reach the EHE goals. I was responsible for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Network Strategy (SNS) to identify new HIV diagnoses for DC.  

For M&E, I was responsible for programmatic data collection, program monitoring, evaluating the programs and the outcomes, providing technical support and assisting in resource allocation. I then mapped the outcomes for the community-based organizations (CBOs) for improvements. The project was instrumental to a separate proposal for using geolocation-based applications to identify new HIV diagnoses for states to implement.  

What types of geographic questions did you ask and think about in your project? 

My questions as a public servant always have a two-tier approach:  

In the first tier: What is the impact of my project on the lives of people and what outcome do I want to answer through this project. I restrict my projects to non-exploratory but policy-oriented questions.  

In the second tier: My projects span demography, GISc and spatial epidemiology or health geography. I do not have any projects or have been part of any project that does/did not entail extensive statistical/data management-based coding.  

What types of data did you acquire to support your project?  

I always use administrative data collection for my projects within my role as a public servant. These data collection tools inform policies within the administration. I encourage researchers in academic settings to use them as well. There are several administrative data sets available which can be instrumental in framing accurate questions. I also encourage researchers to read annual reports to understand their needs. SAMHSA has several such data collection efforts which are publicly available through public use files https://www.samhsa.gov/data/ 

What types of content knowledge and skills (both geographic and more general) did you use to evaluate, process, and analyze the data you gathered for your project? 

A large part of my job is to make sure that administrative data is collected without any glitches and plan how to enhance data collection so that it will assist health related policies in the United States. The scope of each ongoing project is different, thus, as a supervisor, my job is to assign it to the appropriate subject matter expert (SME) who would be responsible to evaluate, process and analyze the data.  

As for projects that I take interest in, they are ones that have a large spatio-temporal aspect to it or have predictive capacity.  

How did you communicate the results of your project (e.g., writing technical reports, making maps and geo-visualizations, creating graphics, data tables, etc.)? Do you have a recent product or publication to share with us as an example?  

I have communicated my results to multiple stakeholders, ranging from scientific audiences, panels, political stakeholders, community-based organizations, legal groups, media (including interviews), administrative leaderships, and the public. The communication strategies I use differ based on the audience. I have generated reports, technical documentation, maps for program evaluation for resource allocation, publications, and conference proceedings.  

What are the criteria that you use to assess the quality of your results 

I look at the impact of my project on improving health outcomes for people and its scientific validity – in other words, I’m looking at the impact of my results on implementing evidence-based policy. 


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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Tracy Whelen

Education: M.S. in Geography (University of South Carolina), B.A. in Geography (Mount Holyoke College)  

The following profile was compiled by Brendan Vander Weil (Texas State University) for the Encoding Geography initiative. To learn more, visit: http://www.ncrge.org/encoding-geography/ 

 


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

I am a Geospatial Consultant and participant in the Business Insights & Analytics Leadership Development Program at Travelers Insurance. Travelers is a leading property and casualty insurance company, offering a wide range of personal and business insurance products primarily in the United States and Canada. 

I recently completed an enterprise rotation in Enterprise Data & Analytics, working on data management and quality assessment of enterprise geospatial datasets and ad-hoc geospatial business consulting requests.   

I am currently in a rotation for Claim Business Intelligence & Analytics. My work includes geospatial information delivery and analysis for Claim senior leadership and field offices. Part catastrophe response, part improving everyday claim handling processes.  

Prior to joining Travelers, I received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography (Mount Holyoke College and University of South Carolina, respectively). In between my degrees I worked as a GIS Specialist in a remote sensing lab at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? 

All the data I work with has a spatial component to it, and we often work with thousands (sometimes millions) of records at a time, necessitating strong geography and computer science skills to efficiently store, process, and analyze data, and to deliver actionable outputs.  

Relevant courses from my education that I use today in my job include: 

Geography 

  • GIS/spatial analysis (intro and advanced)  
  • Remote sensing 
  • Spatial modeling  
  • Web GIS  
  • Basic human and physical geography 
  • Electives: Meteorology, hazards geography, business geography 

Computer Science 

  • Introductory scripting (if statements, loops, functions, etc.) 
  • Python 
  • SQL 
  • Data structures 
  • UI/UX design 
  • Javascript (web app development)  

Math 

  • Discrete math (basic logic and set theory)  
  • Statistics (non-spatial and spatial) 

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work?  

Geographic concepts that I use in my daily work are important for things such as asking what business problems have a spatial component to them or analyzing the spatial relationship between two or more datasets (e.g. spatial joins and other geospatial analysis). I also need to understand a wide variety of spatial data formats, how to convert between them, and what formats are most appropriate for a given use case (e.g. basic raster and vector formats, enterprise SQL databases, APIs, published feature services, etc.). Finally, I need to know when to use geographic coordinates versus a projection (and what an appropriate projection might be).  

What is an example of applying geography concepts and skills in order to analyze and solve problems in your work? 

One of the many risks Travelers seeks to mitigate are natural hazard events, such as wildfires and hurricanes that climate change may make more extreme. Sustainability at Travelers means performing today, transforming for tomorrow and fulfilling our promise to our customers, communities and employees. Where these two come together is how our Claims department responds to natural hazard events, especially large wildfires or damaging wind events. The following videos capture the spirit of what we do, and the geospatial component of Claims catastrophe response. 

 

Note that Travelers is organized along an Agile structure, with cross-functional teams continuously delivering improvements. While there are always new products and applications being developed, there are also lots of long-term operational systems being continuously used and improved upon. Often employees build on past work and may not see a large project or system from beginning to end. My team’s catastrophe response work is an example of this type of long-term system, and my answers are on behalf of the team.  

What types of geographic questions did you ask and think about in your project? 

The broad business question underlying this issue is, “How can we optimally respond to catastrophe events, meeting customer needs with the most efficient use of business resources?” Underlying questions include: 

  • What location has been/will be impacted? 
  • What is our exposure in the area? (i.e. number of policies, associated financial exposure) 
  • Where have claims already been reported? 
  • How many claims might we expect? 
  • What types of claims do we expect to see from this event? (e.g., wind, water, fire, etc.) 
  • What types of damage occurred, and how severe is the damage? 
    • Will this impact our ability to respond, either because an area is inaccessible or because local offices or employee homes have been damaged? 
  • Where can we acquire the necessary data from? 
  • Can we develop models to more efficiently review post-event imagery as part of the catastrophe response process? 
    • If so, what features are we trying to spot in the imagery?  
    • How does this vary by event type? 
    • What might be appropriate modeling algorithms to use? 
    • What are some of the challenges the model might encounter? 

My team does not directly answer all these questions, but we need to be able to provide appropriate data to the senior leadership and other decision makers or support staff who can build a final answer.  

What types of data did you acquire to support your project? 

  • Business data (e.g. claims, policies) 
  • Event data – wildfire boundaries, hurricane wind footprints, precipitation measurements, tornado damage reports, etc. 
  • Aerial imagery and derived model output 
  • Property geometry data (e.g. building footprints, parcel boundaries)

What types of content knowledge and skills (both geographic and more general) did you use to evaluate, process, and analyze the data you gathered for your project? 

In the moment skills that we use on this project for responding to a single catastrophe event include: 

  • Querying databases (spatial and nonspatial joins, filters) 
  • Combining and reformatting a variety of data formats  
  • Running models in python scripts 
  • Common sense/data quality checks 

For long-term projects, the output of which gets used in catastrophe response (multiple team effort), the skills we use are: 

  • Internal model development in partnership with data scientists  
    • Curate input data (image locations, image clipping geometry, training data, etc.) using SQL and python 
    • Evaluating model results against other sources of truth 
  • Evaluating new 3rd party datasets (accuracy, timeliness, availability, cost, other potential sources for the same information)

How did you communicate the results of your project (e.g., writing technical reports, making maps and geo-visualizations, creating graphics, data tables, etc.)? Do you have a recent product or publication to share with us as an example? 

We publish web GIS content as both data layers and maps, creating different versions for different user groups in order to control access to sensitive information. We also use frequent email communication, whether it is one on one, small group with specific questions and answers, or larger list-serv communications (with standardized templates) at key time points during catastrophe response (e.g. web map published, imagery collected, etc.). Additionally, we communicate results through spatial SQL data pulls (tabular format)  

See the below list for examples of broader enterprise or external communications about projects and programs mentioned in this interview. 

  • Travelers 2021 Q3 Earnings call. Note CEO Alan Schnitzer’s introductory remarks including, “location intelligence at the parcel level” and our “AI Assisted Claim Damage Detection Model was a key part of our Ida claim response” 
  • Interview of Adam Sobek (Travelers AVP of Geospatial) at NearMap Navig8 Conference 2020 (Travelers’ use of imagery, including for catastrophe events) 

What are the criteria that you use to assess the quality of your results?   

Most important criterium: Has the business need been met?  

Other important criteria: 

  • Validate data quality 
  • Spatial scale and level of accuracy  
  • Minimizing false negatives, minimizing false positives.  
  • Minimizing process (time, number of steps)

The business need at hand dictates which criteria are important, which varies from question to question. Examples include: 

  • Level of address accuracy needed to plot individual policies versus summarize at a zip code level 
  • Some analytics results are only valuable if they can be completed faster than more manual processes out in the field. 

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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