GIS Manager, North Carolina Geospatial & Technology Management Office within NC Emergency Management
Education: Bachelor’s in Geography, Concentration in Earth Science (University of North Carolina at Greensboro), Certifications: GISP, Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM), Professional Land Surveyor (PLS) in North Carolina
Describe your job/position and some of the primary tasks and duties for which you’re responsible in this position.
I have an extremely interesting job. I’ve been here for eleven years and it has morphed quite extensively. When I began I was the GIS manager and I managed all geospatial information that came into our office for either emergency response, floodplain mapping, or other applications through risk management. I am now the IT manager and GIS and IT work closely together, so my responsibilities include all applications including data with spatial association used inside of the risk management office. One of the biggest projects that I worked on was managing the collection of LiDAR data for the entire state of North Carolina, working with many federal, state, and local agencies, specifically the Department of Transportation. Hopefully by the end of this year we’ll have an entire surface to use for the state. Another was statewide collection of orthophotography in 2010 for the entire state.
Could you talk a little more about how those resources are being applied for risk management in the state? It sounds like a fascinating position that you’re in that’s gone through a lot of changes.
In this field, we are constantly changing, constantly working to keep up with new technologies. We are working on a new project where they are processing 30 points per meter LiDAR, which is a massive amount of data. It requires updated software that can maintain and visualize that information so the public can use all of the information that we’ve gathered. The public in North Carolina has worked hard to make sure that they can utilize all of this information. It’s amazing to watch as people use the data for new and different things.
What substantive geographic knowledge is important and useful to know in your position? For example, this includes knowledge and understanding of geographic terminology and substantive concepts (e.g., alluvial plain, metropolitan area, ethnic group, tertiary economy, coniferous forest, geologic fault, etc.).
I’m North Carolina-centric because I was born and raised here and I work for the state, so most of my working knowledge base of geography is based on North Carolina. With the LiDAR dataset, I’m working with many groups: forestry, Department of Transportation, commerce, property mappers that are creating plans at the local level. It helps to be able to understand the terminology that goes with each one of these groups. As we work through the different geography requirements for each one of these projects and processes, knowing the terminology is very important. The more you know, the easier it is to have a conversation. When I talk to students, I tell them, you don’t have to know everything, you’re going to learn a lot as you go, but you need that baseline of understanding so that when people start throwing terms at you, you understand what direction to go in and what research you need to do. One of the big projects we do is the flood plain mapping program, so I work with engineers quite often. I have learned more about hydrography, hydrology, water surface elevation, and other things that are relevant to this specific type of program. I use geography terms on a daily basis, often times without realizing I’m doing it.
When you started out in your job, coming out of your degree program, did you find that there were areas where you felt a little underprepared or needed additional training? Did you ever think “I wish I had more of that when I was a sophomore, or a junior, or a senior, in college,” or did you feel comfortable just learning as you went?
I wish I would have paid a little more attention as a student. In school, it’s difficult because you’re in the middle of these classes, you’re tired, and you’re trying to get all of this stuff done. It’s important to try to stay focused and listen to what’s going on because every single thing that you do in school and every single class you take has some piece of information that you probably need to take with you.
In terms of how you’re working with technologies, in connection with some of those substantive areas of geography that you’ve been leaning on in your position, can you talk a little about how these connect or fit together? What are some applications that are being used now for risk management in the state and how is that department working with these technologies?
On the emergency management side, we try to forecast what is going to happen during major events. We look at everything from hurricanes to nuclear boundaries to tornado paths to winter storms, and the biggest thing we are looking for is what’s in the way. If there is a flood, we look at who and how much is going to be in the way and what kind of damage is it going to cause. With storm surge, we try to figure out if the storm is going to cause some impact to the structure of the coast, such as erosion. In North Carolina, we are often looking at the Outer Banks and how they are impacted by storm surge. If the storm is going to run into structures, we look at water surface elevation and compare that to the building footprints to see how the water will impact the structures. That’s an example of how we use these technologies daily. We’re walking it all the way through a process from the physical to the impact to the dollar damage, and then we consider the people and the community to see how they can recover from this incident.
How would you describe the impacts of your work in this area of risk management on the state and in communities? Can you cite any specific examples in terms of positive impacts?
Emergency management is built out of responders, so it is a group of people focused on solving problems like rescuing and helping people recover. Many people in emergency management are not used to using datasets to make decisions. We have worked very closely with our team members to answer questions ahead of events, planning makes it easier for them to respond to incidents that are occurring. After planning we automate as much as possible so that the answers the teams need automatically show up in our systems. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 was a good example. A large part of Hurricane Matthew was rain, and it rained a massive amount over a large portion of North Carolina. What we were able to do was use database decision making to respond to flooded areas. Our engineers could tell us when the water was going to arrive based on gages, so we knew where to send our limited resources as well as responders. I’m really proud of those first responders for working with us and taking on this new technology.
What is it about geography that inspires you and connects with your aspirations, both as a private citizen and as a professional in your field?
In college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I ended up looking at the courses I had taken and realizing that geography was where I had spent most of my time. I got my first job at a photogrammetry company after visiting it during one of my college classes. So my career began in photogrammetry and remote sensing, where I was working with orthophotography and planimetric collection. I am a spatial person, so I understand through visualization and pictures, and this work just really clicked for me. I guess that job was sort of my first a-ha moment that basically led me to this very hopeful path, where I try to have a lot of impact.
As I moved to state government, I have been so lucky to work with different groups of people that are doing amazing work in the state. We have a vast amount of work that’s being done with different imagery at the local level, day-to-day. And then on the emergency management side, with the ability to help during an event, we know that this information saves lives by helping us move people out of the way. We have been able to evacuate hospitals and jails and move towns that basically were going to be underwater, and we got those people out ahead of time. I am very lucky to be a part of that and do something that’s really helping North Carolina.
The other thing that is a big piece of what I want to do is make everybody’s job easier. I feel like this data and this understanding of how this information is built really does make things more efficient and makes decisions easier.
Is there anything else you’d like to share, in terms of general advice?
My advice is to use the data that is provided by others. I really push to use the data that is available, for universities to take this data research and learn from it. They should learn how it works and make it do new and better things because it is a base set of information that can change how people think. Wherever you are, you can use the data that is available and learn how that data can make a change in how people see the world.