Transitions

I received an e-mail with some excellent questions geared towards students and young professionals. With permission from the recipient, I am posting the content of our e-mail exchange, edited for bloggage purposes, but 99% intact.

By no means do I have all of the answers, but I wanted to share our conversation with the world as I think they are some of the best questions students and young professionals should be asking both of others, and themselves. If you have any additional comments and/or suggestions, please post them in the comments section below! 🙂

Initial E-mail:

Hi Kitty,

My name is ——. I’ve run across your blog a few times and certainly have enjoyed it and learned a few things along the way.  I’m a GIS student of sorts.

I’m working on getting into GIS in a full time capacity sometime soon. As there isn’t a big GIS community in my small town, I’m starting to get to know GIS people in —— and nearby.

Hoping to throw a couple questions at you.

  1. Broadly speaking, what level of experience do entry/technician level GIS people need to be competitive?
  1. What have you seen that separates top young professionals from the crowd?
  1. Where is the fastest change or biggest growth within GIS that you’re watching?

Thanks!!
—–

My Response:

Hi ——,

Thank you for your kind words in regards to my blog! It’s great to hear your story, learn of your interest in the geospatial community, and hear that you are pursuing work in the geospatial field! 🙂 I truly believe we can change the world with a map and history doesn’t lie; it’s been done countless times over the course of human history.

From your initial e-mail I wanted to commend you, you are asking the right questions and are on the right track in getting some key contacts locally and in ——.

I tried to answer your three questions, listed below, based on my experience but there are many pathways you can take in your journey. So take my answers with a grain of salt but hopefully they help lead you along the way. Also, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any other lingering questions or something comes up in the future. I truly believe we all work together, no matter our geography as we’re a cohesive team around the globe trying to solve the world’s problems together.

Okay, enough of my babble, let’s get to your questions!

Q1. Broadly speaking, what level of experience do entry/technician level GIS people need to be competitive?

This is a great question, and one I have heard from many others trying to get into the geospatial community. I, too, had the same question when trying to figure out what recruiters were looking for. I’m going to answer it in a roundabout way, but hopefully it makes sense in the grand scheme of things.

First and foremost, set yourself apart from others. Being unique gets you a long way in the geospatial community. For example, if you have interest in programming then take a class in Python, another in JavaScript, another in C#, and so on. Or, if you have interest in natural resources field, learn the natural and societal impacts as there aren’t many areas of the world left untouched.

In my experience, recruiters appreciate applicants that are worldly and aren’t focused on one particular area but can span across many different areas and/or disciplines and apply their work in a similar manner. Geospatial professionals use tools from a toolbox to do their work, so being a “one-trick pony” only gets you so far.

As far as the basics go, try and dabble with different technologies and tools. Use both open source (QGIS, GDAL, MapServer, etc.) and Esri technologies. Neither of the technologies are the catch-all answer and both are used no matter the environment you are working in. Having knowledge, even at a basic level of many different platforms and coding languages will also build up your résumé.

If you need more on-the-job professional experience, I recommend contacting various employers whose work interests you to see if there are any unpaid or volunteer opportunities available. Sometimes funding is an issue with an organization but work load can be high and some organizations will welcome you with open arms. Plus, employers appreciate your initiative and are more inclined to make an opportunity available to you. Sometimes these roles even lead to full time work in the long run.

Back to your question as to the level needed for an entry-level position: I don’t think any level is required other than: being yourself, taking the initiative, focusing on multiple areas (even if they seem unrelated to your ultimate goal), and having a willingness to learn.

Q2. What have you seen that separates top young professionals from the crowd?

This is a really great question, and one that I was trying to figure out when I was first getting into the industry and in creating my own path along the way. There’s no ‘right’ answer to this question but based on my experience, I have a “top 5” list below helped propel me down a path leading me to where I am today:

#1. Network, Network, and Network some more

Use social media to get to know others, especially others in your area, or area you plan to work in professionally. Send an e-mail to someone to say ‘hello’ and find out the work they are doing. Learn about the work they are doing. Do you have interest in doing their work now, or in the future? If so, find out how they are doing it and find ways to build up your portfolio/résumé in this way.

Plus, getting your name out there helps you immensely when you are applying for positions. This fact used to annoy me as a student and young professional but I see even myself doing it now. The geospatial community is small, in particular in less populated areas but even throughout the nation, and worldwide. Get to know these people; it’ll take you far (plus, they are pretty much amazing). 🙂

#2. Get an Advanced Degree and/or Professional Certificate(s)

Thanks to the latest recession, many young professionals couldn’t land a job after receiving their Bachelor degree (myself included). So we opted for a longer time in school to focus on building up our résumé. Great for us, not so much on the student loan debt, but hard on students and other young professionals today. Even now, with the economy gaining strength, I can’t name one student that hasn’t pursued an advanced degree. Plus, it’s almost impossible to move up in the ranks with a Bachelor degree these days.

However, school isn’t for everybody. It’s costly, both in debt and potential lost wages, and requires a lot of time. In fact, some that try and go back never end up finishing what they started and end up with even more debt. So another option is to focus on professional certificates, whether through a school program or professional organization. Some of these certificates I pursued early on in my career included: GISP (GISCI), HAZUS-MH (FEMA), and Project Management (University of Minnesota). They still have a cost to them, but they are far less of time commitment and financial burden.

Both options may have a high initial cost and time commitment to them, but in my experience have the greatest return on investment. Many programs and certifications require a lot of additional money and work for a reason. This one pays off right away and you’ll likely never see the return diminish in this category. I received my advanced degree over six years ago and there hasn’t been a month where I haven’t reaped the benefits.

#3. Join ‘Amateur’ and Professional Organizations

There are SO many incredible and amazing organizations available now with the Meetup group boom. When I was getting into the industry, there weren’t a lot of groups but I joined as many as I could to see what other professionals were up to. I learned a great deal in a short amount of time and it helped build up relationships I still have today.

Check out the Meetup site to see what is happening in your neck of the woods. If there isn’t a local Maptime group in your area already, get one started. Even if you are in a small community, you would be surprised how many people have interest in cartography and maps even if they don’t plan on getting involved in the geospatial field professionally.

For more ‘formal’ organizations the following are some good starting points: the Association of American Geographer’s (AAG), the American Planning Association (APA), the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), and many others!

#4. Learn Something New Every Day

  • Attend Conferences: Using your connections from professional organizations, attend professional conferences. Attend presentations, give presentations, and make a map for a poster competition/map gallery (this also helps with the networking piece, too). I am also very biased in this regard as I have been a student assistant for two conferences: the Esri UC and the National American Planning Association conferences. I was able to connect with other students and young professionals, meet with conference organizers, see behind-the-scenes, and learn a lot. If this is an option for you along your journey, I highly recommend it. In many instances student assistants have almost no out-of-pocket expense and the return on investment is out of this world. To this day, seven years after my experiences, I have some of the best relationships with colleagues across the globe I have ever acquired in my life.
  • Take an Online Course: Recently Lynda.com has been my go-to for training. It’s relatively cheap at $300/year and includes training for: developers, designers, the web, photography, business, education, animation, music, and much more! There are many other sites that are beneficial, many of which have no cost. Find a few that you like and stick with them.
  • Follow a Conference on Twitter (e.g. #esriuc, #foss4g, #sotmus, etc.): When you are unable to attend a conference (there are a lot) many others will tweet some great tidbits of information via Twitter. Live vicariously through them, you’ll learn a lot.
  • Attend, Participate, and Lead Meetup events: I was hesitant to get involved in Meetups, but you’ll meet some amazing people from all walks of life with a high interest in topics. Don’t be afraid to volunteer to lead a talk or discussion, even if you have limited knowledge in the subject matter. Use the experience as a way to learn more about a topic you never knew about and to pass on your new knowledge to others. You won’t regret it.

#5. Get Involved

Join a committee whether it be local, regional, state, national, or internationally. This is another way to network, get engaged, help others in the community, and learn a lot. As a young professional you feel like there isn’t much you can bring to the table, at least that was my thinking early on. It wasn’t until after a colleague told me I should accept a nomination into our local GIS group that I believed I could make a difference. It took a year to get situated but once we got going, our group was able to get involved and make a difference for others in the geospatial community. From a networking perspective, it was a fantastic way to meet others around our local geospatial community and work together to better our community.

Q3. Where is the fastest change or biggest growth within GIS that you’re watching?

From what I have seen over the last few years the biggest growth I have seen is in UI/UX (user experience and design). Sometimes UI/UX go hand-in-hand, depending upon an organization’s size or demand, and sometimes they are separated.

Everything from cartography to web design has a particular focus on how a user views, interprets, and analyzes the information. Of course, there are so many ways to interpret a user’s experience and how to design something to better their experience. Unfortunately this makes it difficult to point any resources towards building up a skillset in UI/UX other than watching what others are doing and understand WHY they are doing it in such a manner. But there are a few education programs that focus on UI/UX. The two educational programs I believe that provide the best focus on this are Penn State (they also have an online curriculum) and the University of Wisconsin.

Other recent changes and growth have been in the development community, but this is where my bias comes in since I develop for a living. IMHO, there are many people that can make maps, many others that can develop, but not many that do both. I can name a handful of people, myself included, that have switched over from geospatial analysis to development. If you have interest in the development realm, I recommend using some key learning resources (Lynda.com, Codecademy, Code.org, etc.) and getting an account on GitHub.

I hope I answered your questions, or am steering you in the right direction but if I missed anything or any additional questions have sparked, don’t hesitate to ask. 🙂

Warm Regards,
Kitty

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Innovation

The wheel, the printing press, refrigeration, the automobile, the printing press, the light bulb, the computer and the internet. Imagine how different our lives would be today without the list above and if their inventors stopped their efforts before arriving at the inventions we continue to use to this day. Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.

In the Emergency Management, GIS and Social Media fields innovation is key – finding tricks of the trade that have been used and manipulating them to find solutions that work and increase production. Yet many in each of these fields get lost in the crowd. Why? As Robert Atkinson once said to his son, “When you don’t have to complete for eyeballs, you don’t have an incentive to be innovative. At a real fundamental level, you don’t have to be innovative.” When pressures don’t surround us, many of us don’t see the need to be innovative.

I can definitely relate to Atkinson’s words. In my high school days I was a goalie for my school’s ice hockey team. We were one of the top teams in the state my junior year and were undefeated headed into the playoffs. I was the only goalie on our team and while I did work hard throughout the season I didn’t have another goalie pushing me and if I got injured there was no one there to back me up – I was it. In the section championship against our rival school we headed to overtime, where you guessed it, we ended up losing the game.

Fast forward one year later to my senior season – we had a good backup goalie join our team, who helped push me to be a better goalie. I was a better goalie with her presence at our practices and on the bench watching our games. She made me skate harder in practice, sweat more and, with the hardships of the previous season, push harder than I ever had since she could replace me at any moment if I made a mistake. In the same game against the same opponent we lost to just a year earlier we were down a goal with a minute left in regulation time. In what seemed like a near-repeat of the previous year, my team came back with an equalizer and scored another goal a few minutes into the overtime session to send us to state where we eventually took home the state title for the first time in our school’s history.

Could I, or anyone of my teammates, given up after our section championship that year? Definitely. Just as Emergency Managers or GIS professionals can continue to do the same monotonous work every day but just doing the work will not give you the same results – it is the innovation and entrepreneurship of an individual and/or team that allows for success. The answers may not appear as you hope they will and while it seems all hope is lost – keep going. The greatest moments in life don’t come easy – hard work, dedication and most importantly, YOU will get you there. Keep pushing and never look back.

Change

By nature the human species does not adapt to change well. We are characters of routine and while we can adapt to any changes we can be hesitant to do so.

Think of it this way: What would you do if your boss told you to move to the other side of the building? What about if your mail carrier stopped delivering mail and packages to your dwelling/PO box? What would you do if a tornado destroyed your home and all of your belongings?

While these questions are drastic, even small changes can effect us drastically. The way someone drives in front of us on our daily commute, the way our food was prepared or even the way our hair looks in the morning when we wake up. All of these small changes can drastically change the minutes, hours, days or even weeks to come.

As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Don’t sweat the small changes and don’t be surprised when the big changes happen – most of which are out of your own control. Take a breath, take a step and keep going. Life is full of surprises, some pleasant, others not so pleasant. That is what makes life so interesting.

Whatever it is that you do – expect change and plan to grow as it happens. The power is in your hands – are you ready?

Social Response

Joplin Social Response

Despite the tornado warning and outdoor siren activation many deaths resulted from the EF-5 (winds reaching speeds over 200 mph) that devastated the city of Joplin, Missouri in May 2011. A National Weather Service study on the Joplin tornado revealed the following:

  • A majority of residents did not immediately seek shelter when the tornado warnings were issued;
  • In order to take action and seek shelter, residents needed two to nine risk signals (ie: If a resident heard the sirens going off they would look at the sky, acquire information from their television, call a friend, and so on); and
  • The duration of time between the issued warning and the search for resident confirmation resulted in a higher risk of life loss.
After the tornado struck Joplin, Missouri in May 2011

What is the Future for Weather Warning Systems

How can the emergency management community limit the number of sources residents seek before taking action? One of the major reasons residents confirm awareness before taking action is current technologies have outdoor warning sirens and NOAA weather radios responding at the county level instead of community level.

The National Weather Service and local media have been able to issue storm polygons for the effected communities, however NOAA weather radios and outdoor warning sirens are not currently part of this package. These discrepancies in the system make residents weary when any of these mediums indicate a potential storm and they seek other sources to confirm they need to take action(s). Until all technologies reach the same levels it is imperative residents establish key resources and utilize them before severe weather moves into the area.

Each polygon corresponds to the area the storm is moving towards and/or through and not by its geographic restraints. The NWS in Wakefield, VA posted a large severe thunderstorm warning (yellow polygon) for the area that was affected by the storm. A much smaller area was impacted by a tornado warning (red polygon).

To fill one of the gaps, in May 2012, cell phone corporations began offering severe weather warnings to their customers. Alerts including certain types of National Weather Service Warnings, will be sent automatically to cell phones within areas where severe weather is occurring. However, to receive the messages you must have a cell phone that is capable of receiving them. Not all phones are currently supported but as new models of phones come on the market many will include the alerting capability. To find out if your phone is compatible with the service, contact your cell phone provider.

In addition to the actions of the cell phone corporations, residents can take advantage of smart phone and tablet applications available to them. Some applications that can provide weather information and/or alerts to them via their devices include (listed in alphabetical order):

  • iMapWeatherRadio ($9.99): iMap Weather Radio will send your device an alert if your device or saved locations fall inside a watch/warning box. Once alerted you can listen in to the same message sent to NOAA weather radios (Not available on Android);
  • My-Cast ($3.99): Delivers comprehensive yet intuitive weather information. There is no alerting capability with this application;
  • NOAA Hi-Def Radar ($1.99): Simple yet powerful for viewing real-time, animated weather radar images on an interactive map. There is no alerting capability with this application (Not available on Android);
  • NOAA Now: The latest news and emergency updates from NOAA. There is no alerting capability with this application;
  • NOAA Radio Free (Free): A weather radio application where you can listen in to the same message sent to NOAA weather radios. There is no alerting capability with this application (Not available on Android);
  • RadarScope ($9.99): A specialized display utility for weather enthusiasts and meteorologists that allows you to view  radar data along with tornado, severe thunderstorm, and flash flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service. There is no alerting capability with this application;
  • The Weather Channel (Free): The Weather Channel provides the most accurate and relevant weather information whenever weather matters to you. There is no alerting capability with this application;
  • WeatherGeek ($4.99): View the same numerical weather models professional meteorologists use to develop their forecasts. There is no alerting capability with this application; and
  • WeatherTAP Zoom (Free): Pushes personalized current weather with detailed storm tracking capability. There is no alerting capability with this application (Not available on Android).

Additional Resources

First post

This is my first post – with more to come. I hope to write about GIS, emergency management and social media in particular but nothing is off the table. More to come, and soon. Stay tuned!