Lisa Colson

GIS & Imagery Specialist, USDA/Foreign Agricultural Service

Education: M.A. in Geography (George Washington University), B.A. in Environmental Studies (Eckerd College)

Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
In our workplace, we use a variety of decision support services and I am responsible for knowing how to use all of them, providing geospatial training, and responding to certain map requests. We use a variety of vector, raster, and satellite imagery data sets, requiring advanced knowledge to ensure proper scientific data handling to efficiently conduct analysis. My work involves mapping crop conditions, weather, crop distribution, and trade policy and effects. Sometimes, I have a project for 2-3 weeks and other times, I have new challenges each day. Each map request requires me to be creative in distilling multiple data sets into clear and concise policy messages. We talk a lot about the subtle messages conveyed in our use of colors, annotations, and other cartographic features.

What attracted you to this career path?
I was attracted to this industry because geography provides a more flexible approach to integrating different disciplines of information into summary messages about health, the environment, international development, and other complex topics. Working in agriculture, especially around the world, addresses many of the interdisciplinary topics that interest me, including food security, sustainable development, and poverty alleviation.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
As an analyst, I was required to take initiative to learn how to process satellite imagery into clear, concise stories about current crop conditions. I had to be flexible in identifying areas where the data and tools I had could provide a reliable and accurate sense of the crop conditions, taking into consideration constraints in the spatial resolution, timing, cloud free percentage, and other details that would hinder or support my ability to perform the analysis. Time and computer network constraints often played a significant role in figuring out if an analysis would be realistic to tackle.

My education in geography and specifically remote sensing provided me with the necessary foundation to advance my skills for the specific analytical demands of my current workplace. In addition, my background in policy communication greatly supported me in creating well-received map products that simplified complex data into clear policy messages. I really loved doing that analytical work.

More recently, I have become a graphics editor and training coordinator to help build upon the geospatial skills of my colleagues. With newer staff and the many decision support tools that we use, it is challenging to stay abreast of application developments. Communicating how I did my work, while staying abreast of the applications, is a newer and still rewarding challenge for me. I enjoy sharing my love of geospatial analysis and remote sensing with colleagues, especially as the industry leap frogs forward with technological advancements.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often?
Geographic skills:  I think I most often use location identification, in the sense of advising colleagues to clarify the locational extent of the map image. This is done by adding rivers, roads, cities, and other geographical context to the maps of satellite imagery and other raster data sets. Yet there is more to this. The main geographic questions we tackle are (1) how much grows (in terms of crops) in a given place and (2) what are the conditions of the crops in that place? The important skills myself and colleagues use to answer these questions are spatial joins (aka, making geospatial data sets from tabular data), difference mapping (with raster calculator and post-classification change detection), zonal statistics (to help summarize data to counties or states), and other area calculations.

In the world of remote sensing, I am also required to know the name of many satellite sensors and some basic sensor specifications. For example, sometimes management thinks higher spatial resolution would help make it easier to answer key questions, but these sensors are often missing other critical data. I periodically engage in important discussions about the trade-offs between time and processing speed when considering the geographic extent, timing, and spatial resolution of different imagery sources. Having the technical expertise and yet flexibility to talk with non-technical decision makers is a critical aspect of my work.

General skills: I frequently use writing and presentation skills. I present at conferences about interesting analysis I have done or new product development, such as the Global Agricultural & Disaster Assessment System (GADAS). GADAS is a free, global website that provides a geospatial platform for analysis with hundreds of data layers. When showcasing this or other workflows, I heavily utilize my PowerPoint skills preparing slides. My work also requires me to talk with users of our applications to figure out their challenges and the assumptions that they bring to the application. Sometimes knowing an application well makes a person blind to how others might approach using the same tool. I frequently communicate with people who are not trained in geography, but it is my responsibility to help them be able to perform certain geographical tasks. It can be challenging and requires me to have patience and sometimes think creatively.

Honestly, I far more frequently use general skills to perform my duties, as I review our decision support systems, report bugs on where the applications are having issues, and advise on improvements to these systems. Technically, I am testing geospatial applications and therefore using geospatial skills, but any tester can tell you that they are not being overly creative in performing this task. My work involves far more documentation than I would probably prefer to admit. Yet, concise writing that captures a concern or requirement for a developer to efficiently fix or enhance a decision support tool has its merits. That “telephone game” sometimes works better than other times.  When it works, it is very rewarding.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
Sure, and yet the skills I need I have built upon from my academic training. For example, my previous career in the non-profit world taught me more about using PowerPoint effectively and giving presentations, and yet I learned presentation skills during school as well. In addition, I of course had to write many papers in college and graduate school. These assignments prepared me well, and yet I spent my first 3-5 years in DC learning a completely different writing style. After all, policy memos, briefing papers, and even 5-15 minute presentations for the office are so different from what I did in college.

Here’s another way of thinking about this: some people believe the purpose of going to college is to learn a skill, but instead it is often to learn how to think critically. So how do I identify skills I learned outside of school, when I am constantly thinking through new challenges and exploring solutions to build upon my academic foundation? To me, this is honestly the difference between a job and a career; and I love having a career.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
First and foremost, I look for the skills needed to perform the job. This is sometimes easier said than done. I work in a place that needs talented people in a variety of arenas. Finding a person with a diverse set of skills can be very challenging and this makes the art of screening for new employees more fluid than some people might expect.

We need people who can be clear and concise in presenting information. The resume or CV is a first indication of this skillset. Sometimes technical people list out all of their skills, but with little organizational structure that helps provide a sense of the person and their history. I always look for people with not only the technical skills, but also an interest area relevant to our work, whether this is meteorology, agronomy, international development, food security, or another relevant field. This helps me know the person could provide scientific quality analysis in an operational environment.

We also look for a person who can be flexible to work with a variety of personality types. Every workplace has a culture and it’s nice to find people who can blend into that culture instead of shaking it up. An interview is as much about the candidate as it is about the team and being able to envision the candidate contributing something new or missing to the team.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
First, don’t be afraid to get to know a variety of tools. Second, geography is a tool that can be applied in many different disciplines. Take the time to develop some expertise in a discipline, where you can geospatially analyze relevant data. Conducting analysis goes beyond knowing how to use the tools, as it is important to also understand the data and proper data handling needs. Third, realize all jobs involve some data cleaning, file management, and time management. No one is too important to do these tasks.

Most importantly, my advice is to take on challenges. Start by finding the little things that are not working well and fixing them. Focusing on tasks within your areas of responsibility that help things function better is a way for you to take initiative and expand your area of expertise. Finding the right time and place to take initiative is incredibly important. It makes all the difference between getting criticized for stepping outside your lane and being rewarded for showing the necessary initiative to solve an important problem. Workplaces are as broken as we allow them to be, so try not to be the source of problems when there is so much interesting work that could be done.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
Sometimes I think geography is currently exploding. Technological infrastructure has finally caught up with the wishes and desires of many analysts. Now with cloud computing, it could be possible to process not just gigabytes, but terabytes of data. Demand for geographers, especially combined with remote sensing data, has increased over the past 10 years, and with more powerful computers the possibilities for working with these data are only limited by our creativity.