Visionary Marketing spoke with Catherine Crook – senior GIS program manager for Hexvarium – to discuss the use of geographic information systems or GIS and its impact on communication networks and the world. We touch on her day-to-day obligations as a senior gas program manager. The software is used for tracking systems, the issue of climate change, and more. Catherine provides a very insightful view on the emerging GIS that is becoming an autonomous type of tracking space. However, there is a need for students to understand and find an interest in what GIS really is.
A day in the life of a GIS program manager
Could you describe your day-to-day obligations as a senior gas program manager?
Hexvarium is a startup that is pushing GIS into a broadband space. As a program manager, my job is to interface with clients. Manage a team of analysts who must get the deliverables to where they need to be. I also must make sure our development team is involved in all the nuances that are happening in what the customers are requesting. Because it’s a new way of looking at and navigating the broadband space, a lot of customers have never seen this type of application.
Most of my time is spent training as well as making sure all components are where they need to be. The purpose of my job is to be the glue. To make sure that when we deploy something, everyone really understands the reason why we are deploying it the way we are.
Which skills do you regularly use for your job?
Things have changed a lot as I have navigated through my career. My job is now to implement systems that correlate directly and involve the GIS space. My background was mostly in the GIS analyst component, but my skill set would be more of a project manager.
As a start-up, we were tracking hardly anything. I’ve implemented a lot of work-order tracking, systems tracking, and a JIRA ticketing system. There are all these different things in place now that we’re able to go back and grab. We can compare today to six months ago, and today to last week. That helps us navigate changes moving forward. I think understanding the GIS space is my regular skill. At the same time being able to project manage that GIS space seems to be the most dominant skill in these early stages of a startup.
Which software do you use to implement those tracking systems?
Previously, I’ve made my own tracking system. I’ve coded and made my own, and that’s been in SharePoint. That was a tracking system where if anybody wanted anything, it would come in as a ticket and then we would deploy it after it came in and there were criteria you had to follow. In the startup world, we don’t necessarily use SharePoint. I’ve then developed a work-order system so that a template environment must be adhered to for asks, and then that gets placed in a Slack channel. It’s like we’re building the plane while flying it.
Most days if I have some time, I build a documentation or tracking system while I’m still in the air. It’s way better than it was six months ago. We can now grab things and understand landscapes better than we ever could before, but it’s going to take another year or so for us to be standardized in the ticketing and tracking space.
How does the use of GIS influence fiber-optic communication networks?
When we come to the broadband space, an Internet space that is not on the landscape. It’s considered a newer utility. If you don’t have electricity or water, those are life-changing spaces. If you don’t have broadband, they don’t really consider that life-changing. It’s changing more as we navigate through this because is the only way I can speak to you in France. We are heavily dependent on broadband, for me and you to have this conversation with no squiggly line saying that there’s a problem in the flow of information between us and that’s going through a cable that’s underneath the Atlantic Ocean. So, GIS is emerging in this space where we are tracking it, and we are looking at fiber builds and fiber locations.
In the same matter, it is becoming an emerging GIS world as more states need to grab their grant funds and they don’t know where to go. GIS allows them to look at different areas and their populations. They might have low upload speeds and download speeds, where we can take over 200 datasets to look at where those people are. We can do a site suitability analysis and look at the location where those groups of people live that are not being connected. We know there is a large population. Especially in the United States and Canada. We spoke to the provincial Ontario Infrastructure Ministry at the conference. They came to us and said, “Wow, we just don’t know where these people are, and we need somebody to find them.” So, it’s becoming quite a coupled space with GIS and broadband.
How has GIS been applied – or how could it be applied – to the issue of climate change?
GIS is a database of information. Currently, we are barely scratching the surface of GIS and how it can help the climate issues. We have collected lots of different datasets, such as temperatures, and storms. We look at sea levels, and we have bathymetry data. Which is the topography on the ocean floor so that we can look at the various changes there. Many people could use the data in more predictive ways and look at historical events versus what’s happening currently.
Sometimes we get overwhelmed by the amount of data, and we can’t possibly look at it all. I once had a student look at the effects of displacement of water and debris onto the Gulf of Mexico. It was amazing how he could use LIDAR. Which is sensory imaging on the Earth’s surface to do an analysis and tell us how much debris was removed from the ocean and placed on the land from the hurricane. Another example was at a meeting. I was listening to the recollection of how GIS was used for the Katrina environment after that hurricane occurred and FEMA uses GIS too.
How did you get started with GIS?
Nobody thinks of becoming a GIS person. I really wanted to do epidemiology, which was the study of viruses. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be away from the house for the long term that an epidemiology career would need. In 2001, one of my professors told me there was an emerging technology called GIS, and if I could learn it, he would take me to Costa Rica and map the rainforest.
The GPS Trimble unit that he gave me was a unit that gives a satellite connection, it takes your position, and when you move, it drops points behind you, and those become lines. Once I took the data – I had to transform it and make it visible on the screen. Later on, I went to the University of Washington and took a certification and ended up being quite enthralled by it because it allowed me to take my data and visualize it myself. And because at the time my degree was a bachelor’s in environmental science, I could work in that space by collecting and deploying the data myself.
Looking for a Job as a GIS program manager
It was very difficult to find a job at that time because the population just didn’t understand GIS. I went on to write out my resume and a letter. I had seven letters that I sent out to jurisdictions. A response came from a tiny town in the mountains of Mount Rainier called Eatonville, Washington. With a population of 3,000 people, their goal was to expand their boundaries. At the same time, look at their internal infrastructure for grant funding. From there, it just kind of grew into the space where I was an “analyst one” and then “analyst two.” And I kept going until I ended up being a supervisor, then a manager, and so on.
How do you anticipate GIS evolving over the next 5 to 10 years?
I was in a meeting last year and Dr. Michael Goodchild, who was spearheading this workshop was there. He was the person who pushed GIS in academia. And I told him – it’s really intimidating to tell the person that almost created all this that things aren’t the way they were. If it were the case that GIS is just geographic information systems now, that would be a disservice to what we are looking at. It is combined with data science now. Spatial locations are all embedded in the same world. Everything we have done since the satellites opened. Now we have a point to always attach to our body as we’re carrying our phones. We were tracking people, as in we knew their information, but their movements, location and what were they doing. More of an autonomous type of tracking space.
I mentioned that GIS needed a change in name so that we could sell it better. He was very interested and posed a lot of good questions about how can we get high schoolers interested in GIS. The problem we encounter is all the data can be overwhelming and we also need more people in this profession so we can manage better. A lot of my students at Seattle University will tell me, “I’m here because it’s required.” But then once they start learning, they start to realize that they are part of it. Unfortunately – younger generations – don’t know they’re in this space. So, I think in five years we need to change our views on it and make it more of a standard understanding.