Brent Sams

Education: Ph.D. in Horticulture (University of Adelaide), Master of Geography (Virginia Tech), B.S. in Geography (University of North Alabama)  

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/ 


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

My current role as a Viticulture Research Scientist at E&J Gallo Winery is to design and execute research projects focused on understanding how fruit chemistry/quality change over time and space. I am interested in these changes from the within-vineyard scale to the regional scale. To accomplish this, I (with a lot of help from others) use a wide variety of field measurements (fruit zone light exposure, vine canopy temperature, soil cores, and many others), proximal sensing (electric conductivity, elevation mapping), and remote sensing (satellite, UAV, commercial aircraft). I spend a good deal of time analyzing how these measurements are connected.  

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

The interaction of geography and computer science is essential for my role, along with many others in my department. At the project level, I work with different types of datasets that must be organized so that they can be analyzed and interpreted together. I rarely start any of this in GIS, but in a statistics package/program. I don’t have a background in computer science or coding/programming, but these have been very useful skills to develop. Once I have a product/model/application, it needs to be available for use by our stakeholders. This can be a dashboard, a database, or other digestible format which usually implies additional knowledge of other programs or applications. Probably the most specific use of geo-computation in my role is in the geostatistical analyses of grape samples collected from different densities and locations.  

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

Recently, we’ve been working on a project to combine data from multiple vineyards to add statistical robustness to the spatial analysis of low-density grape samples. To validate the method, we divided up the vineyards into fishnet grids to create a Monte Carlo simulation that would iterate through many different combinations of field samples based on their locations.  

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

We were interested in how wine grape chemistry changed over time and space, and at specific locations from the within-vineyard scale to the regional or statewide scale; how farm management and the environment are connected; and how we could use all of these variables to make predictions about where to find the best fruit. All this information needed to be synthesized and made into something that could be analyzed by a computer. Sometimes in the quantitative analysis world we are faced with qualitative variables and how to incorporate things like, “How does this vineyard manager decide when and how much water to irrigate?.” These then need to be summarized into something we can include in a mathematical model.   

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

For this project, we were mostly interested in the chemistry of grapes processed in a lab after the sample location was tagged with a GPS unit. In a related project and at the same locations, we measured soil texture, the fraction of useful light into the fruit zone of the canopy, and yield.  

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? 

Everything starts with the synthesis of what’s been done, where, and how. Experimental design and sampling strategies are also necessary. There are a lot of measurements specific to grapevines that we used, but general statistical knowledge was also necessary for writing reports, publications, etc. I use R and R Studio quite a bit, as well as several GIS applications with a bunch of different spatial analyses. One specific example is the use of k-means classification with raster datasets to assess patterns that exist between different layers such as interpolated chemistry maps with soil maps or imagery.   

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?  

There will be a few publications from this data set, as well as reports to internal stakeholders. You can find those publications below:   

  • Sams, B., Bramley, R.G.V., Sanchez, L., Dokoozlian, N.K., Ford, C.M., and Pagay, V. (2022) Remote sensing, yield, physical characteristics, and fruit composition variability in Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. American Journal of Enology and Viticulture 73, 93-105. 
  • Sams, B., Bramley, R., Sanchez, L., Dokoozlian, N., Ford, C. and Pagay, V. (2022) Characterising spatio-temporal variation in fruit composition for improved winegrowing management in California Cabernet Sauvignon. Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajgw.12542 
  • Sams, B., Bramley, R., Aboutalebi, M., Sanchez, L., Dokoozlian, N.K., Ford, C.M. and Pagay, V. (2022) Facilitating mapping and understanding of within-vineyard variation in fruit composition using data pooled from multiple vineyards. Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajgw.12556 

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

I’m an applied researcher in the private sector, so while the publications are nice, I really want to know if something works. Does it help us do something, save us money, or even make us more money?


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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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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Nicolas Saravia

Education: Master of Geography (University of Bristol)  

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 currently analyze transportation businesses and their innovations. On the side, I help micro-mobility start-ups by advising their leadership on how to improve their businesses in areas such as capital raising, operations, and data science. Most of my career has been at the intersection of operations, data analysis and business intelligence. I’ve also written tech patents to solve physical infrastructure issues with IoT and machine learning. 

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

In my opinion, the ability to think spatially is a geographer’s greatest strength — the world is full of challenges that need 3D thinking to solve them efficiently. Through the course of my career, my strategy has shifted from viewing geocomputation tools as means on their own, to a more auxiliary, albeit important role. In many real-life business scenarios, one can solve spatial problems without geographical methods; however, in my case, geocomputation tools such as GIS, spatial statistics, and web mapping have certainly enabled me to find the needle in the haystack faster than otherwise and in a way that is visually compelling and factual.  

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

In businesses where you have physical assets, there is a real need to analyze the human and physical factors that affect the management of these across time and space. Human geography variables like population density, traffic patterns, and infrastructure may affect demand depending on the type of business. In my career, I’ve also focused on measuring the impact of physical geography and meteorological variables, everything from elevation to distinct weather variables and natural disasters.  

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

The main questions I asked seek to answer how the different variables affect demand and supply in a business’s geography, which ultimately may impact the bottom line. I also look at how to optimize operations based on the analysis of the human and physical factors that affect the area. Additionally, I ask which methods should we use to predict external factors, and how do we balance speed and quality in results; how do we automate certain repetitive tasks without impacting costs; and what software/tools do we use to handle latency based on the amount of data we are processing?  

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

Being able to find reliable and open data is 90% of the battle in many startup jobs. In my case, I have heavily relied on free NOAA data for different weather variables and OpenStreetMap for infrastructure data (QGIS has a great plug in for that!). In larger companies and in consulting, there is sometimes the option to purchase big data, such as traffic flows. Familiarizing oneself with the nuances and quality issues of a dataset and being able to process that data with automation to remove any noise, will generally set up things for better decision making.  

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? 

The foundational skill that is most practical in operations and data analysis is SQL.  Start-ups generally rely on open-source software and tools to get the job done without impacting the team’s budget allocation. QGIS has been especially useful throughout my career, both for visualizing data and in running algorithms like k-nearest neighbor or performing spatial randomness experiments. Having had a prior understanding of the statistical methods that the tools run helps me understand what they are visualizing. This is significantly more important than knowing where the tools are located (which is more readily searchable).  I generally have used the R language for statistical analysis of geographic data, and Python to automate repetitive tasks. Some knowledge of JavaScript has been useful, especially when visualizing results on a map platform like Leaflet. General business intelligence programs like Looker, PowerBI, or Tableau (this one has Leaflet plugins) are also good to have in the toolbox, especially when delivering results to executives. Having these listed on a resumé can open doors.    

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?  

Throughout my career I’ve had to write standard operating procedures, technical whitepapers, and websites; however, much more frequently I’ve had to summarize large amounts of information in concise emails and bullet points, with a quick chart or map. I’ve found that results are most effectively communicated when they are direct, with clean and clear visualizations.   

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

At a dataset level, keeping in mind sample size and implementing proper data cleaning and further investigating any observation errors. A/B testing is a great way to evaluate insights and decisions. It is always important to review results once they are in and do a proper post-mortem digging of what has changed in the data and measure the adjustments. 


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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