Senior GIS Analyst and Cicero Data Manager, Azavea
Education: Masters in Urban Spatial Analytics (University of Pennsylvania), Bachelors in Geography and Geospatial Imaging (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology)
Could you give us a description of your job and some of the primary tasks and duties for which you’re responsible?
Azavea is a geospatial software company. We’re a mixture of professional services and products. I am the Senior GIS Analyst the Data Analytics team. I’m the only person at the company with a degree in GIS, so I’m the lead on any task that involves spatial analysis. We have projects that we work on for clients that involve spatial analysis or data analysis that produce maps or reports. We also service other teams in the company, so there might be a team that’s building a geospatial software application, and they might need some data analysis or data prep.
As the Senior GIS Analyst, I am often working any of the ends on projects as well as the analysis. When we’re scoping out a proposal, I’ll work on that and outline the different tasks that we’re going to be doing, the different steps in the geospatial analysis, as well as the outline of which tools and software we’re going to use to complete the analysis. I work hand in hand with the project manager, and we deliver a scope to the client. They’ll approve it or we’ll have negotiations around it, and then we’ll begin working on the project. When a project begins, I’ll work with the project manager to assign tasks and roles. The project manager will be the primary point of contact with the client, and I’ll be working internally with the team, often doing a lot of the analysis work, and finishing off the deliverables and end products and handing them over to the client.
Who are your clients?
Azavea is a B Corporation – that stands for “Benefits”. We’re a for-profit company, but we’ve operated with the mission of a nonprofit, so we work on projects that we think benefit the world and the community we live in. Primarily our clients are nonprofits, foundations, or governments. We also pride ourselves as a civic technology firm. We work on a lot of projects that we think help connect people with decision makers, and help improve the civic sphere that we all live in.
My other job title is Cicero Data Manager. Cicero is a database of elected officials, their contact information, and legislative districts for 9 countries, all 50 states, and about 300 cities throughout the United States. I’m in charge of maintaining all of our data on elected officials. We provide Cicero as a database so our clients, which are normally nonprofits or advocacy organizations who are trying to connect their members with elected officials, can advocate for their cause. We offer our database to them to use internally.
How do you perceive the value and importance of geographic knowledge in performing your work? Could you give us a breakdown of the substantive, conceptual, and procedural geographic knowledge you’ve acquired through your training in geography and how this relates to your job?
Being the only person with a GIS Analyst job title in my company means that I am the one that people go to when they have questions about how to complete a project with spatial analysis or geographic data.
I would say the substantive and conceptual knowledge are important usually for scoping out projects and thinking about how to complete projects. We often have clients that come to us with limited budgets, or they have a lot of data and they just don’t know what to do with it. Having a conceptual knowledge of the type of tools that you would need to run, or the type of analysis that you would need to do is really important because that helps scope out a project and figure out the solution to their problem. They might have a bunch of data about their clients, and where their clients live, but they might not know that census data exists. We can predict where other clients might be that they haven’t tapped into. Having that kind of conceptual knowledge about the relationship between people and place is really, really important.
Procedural knowledge comes in when we actually win a project. We have to figure out how we are going to go about doing it. It’s also helpful in terms of scoping out projects. We tend to respond to a lot of RFPs for work, and we apply for a lot of small business innovation research (SPIR) grants. We have a technical writer, so she responds to all of these and writes up proposals. Sometimes, she’ll come to me if there is an opportunity through a government agency, so we can figure out if we can complete that project and how exactly we would do it.
To give an example, we recently had an opportunity to do some work in Madagascar. Our client wanted to work with folks on the ground in mapping Madagascar to better connect people with elected officials to promote environmental policy. Our solution was to leverage our Cicero product to get the legislative district boundaries for Madagascar and the elected official data, and then build a mobile app that allows people in Madagascar to connect with their assembly members in the legislature. Also, we could take environmental data for Madagascar to collect land cover change, climate, and other geographic/spatial data and aggregate that into legislative districts. This would actually give people information about land cover change, deforestation, and habitat change in their district so they could inform their elected official or assembly member about what was happening. We had to find the unique solution to that problem, and it was conceptual geographic knowledge that really helped figure that out.
Substantive knowledge definitely comes into play as well. We use census data all the time in our projects. We have to figure out what is the best census data to use, and what’s the best administration level (tracts, block groups, blocks, metropolitan areas). That comes into play with a lot of our projects, including some of our software projects where we have to scope out what is the best way to display this data on a web map (MSA level, block level, tract level, state level).
What have you observed in your work in terms of impacts in your applications and uses of geography and through your organization?
At Azavea, our bottom line is that we want our projects to have a positive impact on the community. A few years ago, we worked with the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. They are an organization that advocates for higher quality child care across the Philadelphia region. We took data on childcare institutions in the city of Philadelphia and ranked the quality of childcare at these institutions. We looked at the quality of childcare and also the risk factors or negative impacts on children in Philadelphia, and then we ranked and scored city council districts using that information. We created these targeted reports that showed the city council how they were ranked against other city council districts. It enabled the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children to advocate for increased funding for childcare. That was really powerful, as the city council ended up awarding the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children $500,000. They also got a matching grant from the William Penn Foundation. They ended up getting a million dollars to improve the quality of childcare and education for young people in Philadelphia.
That kind of model of creating, aggregating, scoring and ranking data by legislative or council district has been effective for us for a lot of different causes. Last year, I was an expert witness for a federal court case on gerrymandering here in Pennsylvania. We had an organization that was filing a lawsuit to get the congressional districts in Pennsylvania overturned as a gerrymander. They needed some mapping done to prove that some districts were gerrymandered. In terms of this court case, I was brought on and mapped out all of the congressional districts. I also used data on a partisan voting index at the voting precinct level to show that the districts were gerrymandered. The evidence and the data that was used in our case were used in the subsequent court case at the state level, which actually won and overturned the congressional districts. I can’t say that our case was successful as we were turned down in federal court in a 2-1 decision, but the subsequent state case in the state court did end up winning.
What is it about geography that inspires you and helps you pursue your life aspirations?
I have been interested in geography and maps for my entire life. I love to travel and see new places in the world, and knowing about geography and having that understanding has helped me become a better world traveler. I feel that my deep interest and understanding of geography has also helped me become a better, more engaged citizen politically. Geography gives me a better understanding of different places and different people. In terms of my professional life, I had a lot of different options. Underlying all of these options was a strong interest in geography, and I felt that GIS was the way to go.
If you could think back to that undergraduate experience you had at Harrisburg, when did you have that ‘a-ha’ moment with geography?
One of these moments occurred when I was in an undergraduate course. I have always been pretty interested in urban planning and considered it as a potential career opportunity. When I first discovered the extent to which GIS could be used in planning and transportation analysis, I became even more interested in it. I worked on a project where I mapped out a potential commuter rail line between Harrisburg and Lancaster, and I used GIS to figure out how many people lived within certain distances of different branches of railroads for potential community rail lines. It was all very conceptual, and it was all very basic, but it was then that I realized “wow, this is really powerful.”
As someone who has been interested in politics all my life, another moment was when I first realized that I can connect the dots with GIS data in terms of redistricting and drawing legislative district lines. There’s not enough discussion about how, as a GIS Analyst, I can help make redistricting and drawing of lines more accessible to everyday people. At Azavea, I had the opportunity to work on one of our projects called District Builder, which is an online, web-based tool for drawing legislative districts. It was kind of a moment when I realized “wow, GIS is so important and fundamental to how we vote,” and that was definitely an ‘a-ha’ moment for me in realizing what I wanted to do as a GIS analyst and as a geographer.