Geography Matters!

Submitted by Joseph Kerski:

Joseph Kerski in front of one of his favourite things – a map!

I confess that I am a “geographer by training and by philosophy.”  What does that mean?  The “training” part is easy.  I believe that while we all are natural-born geographers in the sense that from the time we are born, we are continually trying to make sense of our environment.  But there is also a formal discipline called Geography in which I immersed myself, beginning in high school and continuing on to three degrees in Geography and continuing on the job.  Contrary to what many people believe, Geography is not about memorizing state and national capitals, imports and exports, and the names of mountain ranges and seas. Yes, places and data are important to geographers, but Geography is the study of how the environment influences people and how people influence the environment.

The “philosophy” part has to do with respecting, enjoying, and caring for the environment, and seeing the world from a spatial perspective.  Other posts on the Day of Geography site make it evident that others share this philosophy and these convictions.

How has this philosophy influenced me?  It has deeply affected the way I view the world, how I view our role as people in the world, and how geographic processes are fundamental to understanding the world.   How has this influenced my career?  It has drawn me into the world of geotechnologies–how we can use digital maps, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and data–to make better decisions on a daily basis on issues that impact the planet.

I believe that spatial analysis with mapping and geotechnologies can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective.  My goal is to empower educators, students, decision makers, and the general public to think spatially and use geotechnologies in teaching, learning, and research to solve 21st Century problems from local to global scale. These problems include natural hazards, food security, city planning, sustainable agriculture and tourism, water quality and quantity, soil erosion, energy, political instability, crime, human health, and others that grow in complexity and increasingly affect our everyday lives. One of my major goals is to see geotechnologies being used beyond geography, planning, and environmental studies, in such disciplines as history, business, sociology, health, and elsewhere across the campus and in society.  My hobbies and interests involve getting out into the field to collect data about the environment, computer mapping, Geographic Information Systems, GPS, remote sensing, analyzing data, teaching, hiking, music, and caving.

Joseph Kerski in the field – guess where?

I served for 22 years as geographer and cartographer at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and the US Geological Survey.  I teach online and face-to-face courses at primary and secondary schools, through MOOCs, and universities such as Sinte Gleska University, Penn State, and the University of Denver.  I am active in educational nonprofit organizations, including serving as president of the National Council for Geographic Education.  Since 2006, I have served as Education Manager for Esri, on a team that emphasis thought leadership in geospatial technologies in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally.  I focus on GIS-based curriculum development, research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, professional development for educators, communication about the need for geographic skills, tools, and perspectives through keynote addresses, articles, social media, and workshops, and fostering partnerships to support GIS in education.  I am active in creating and teaching online courses in spatial thinking and geotechnologies.  I have written books such as Interpreting Our World, Spatial Mathematics, International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS in Secondary Schools, The Essentials of the Environment, Tribal GIS, and The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data.  I am on work travel about 1/3 of the time, to regional, national, and international conferences to speak about geotechnologies in education and to learn from others, and to university campuses and even some primary and secondary schools.  Some of my more memorable trips have been to 6 universities in Japan, teaching at three secondary schools in the UAE, teaching in a 500 year old educational institute with gold ceilings in Germany, working with a sustainability grant at the Island Institute in Maine, working with a group of educators from Africa and the Middle East in Tunisia, teaching in a rainforest in Costa Rica, meeting some incredible high school and university students and professors in Kenya, and visiting the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, New Mexico State University, and Penn State University for the past few “GIS Day” (www.gisday.com) events. Just a month ago, I had the honor of working with faculty at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada.  But I also find everyday joy in helping the many people who write or call me each day with a technical or educational question.

I write weekly for our GIS education blog, a career education blog, and a spatial data in society blog.  I have created over 3,500 videos about geography, STEM, education, GIS, GPS, and remote sensing, mapping, space and place, and fieldwork.  For more information about me, see www.josephkerski.com, or my posts on http://twitter.com/josephkerski

For the past decade, the word “green” has been probably been used more than any other to market or promote products, services, and programs. You may have seen green be applied to things that are truly sustainable as well as to things that may not be.  Last month I even saw a green phrase used at a gas station: “Our gas is clean and green.” Perhaps the station itself was powered by wind energy? At any rate, there is no doubt that the word “green” is all around us and shows no sign of abating.

In my field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), “green” is used frequently as well, and for good reason. From wind power to tree management to river restoration to other applications, GIS is being applied on a daily basis to solve problems from local to global. In a document entitled “GIS is Green“, it is stated that “With the growing unease and awareness among large segments of the population that remedial action must be taken to resolve the many environmental crises we now face, GIS solutions are currently being implemented around the world that provide the technological and scientific support necessary to create programs and processes designed to return our planet to a more sustainable and balanced level of use. Whether increasing the efficiency of fleet vehicles by optimizing standard routes and subsequently reducing fuel consumption or determining the optimum location for a wind farm to produce energy with minimal pollution, GIS provides the quantified information and analytical capabilities necessary to make decisions that can both support growth and reduce consumption.

What made me aware that choosing a green career was important?  Many of us have pivotal moments that helped shape their career path.  My “a-ha moment” in deciding to work for sustainability and geography is when I read a book entitled The Last Great Auk, by Allan W. Eckert, as an 11-year old.  Because the author makes the very last of these great birds the protagonist, I found this to be an enjoyable, fascinating book that reads very much like a novel.   However, I also knew that these great flightless birds would go extinct at the end of the book on 3 July 1844, and knowing this was the way the book would end did not make it easy to read.  I knew upon reaching the end of the book that I wanted to have a career involving mapping and studying the Earth in some way, and perhaps in my own way prevent future extinctions.   I created a 10-part video series where I discuss the book and encourage you to dig into these videos while thinking about your own career paths.  In Part 1 of the video series, I describe four reasons to explore the connections between geography and language arts, and about key moments in our education journey.

Mapping earthquakes in 3D using GIS on the web – the 3D Scene Viewer in ArcGIS Online.

Career Advice

I encourage you to identify your interests and career first and foremost, then think about what organization would best help you to achieve your goals.  Equally important, think about what organization you would most like to contribute to in order to help meet their goals, because, of course, it’s not all just about you.

The two most important qualities I believe for all of you looking for a career or job position is:  Be Yourself, and Be Curious.  What do I mean?

Be Yourself means being honest about your own job and personal strengths and your own weaknesses, or areas that you are seeking to improve.  Don’t pretend in an interview to be anything you’re not.  Be Curious means asking questions.  This means to ask questions at the interview, of course.  But beyond the interview, on the job and while you are still in school, ask lots of questions. Be curious about the world.  Good questions lead to good investigations. Investigate and solve problems.  If you don’t have some of the skills needed to solve those problems, acquire and practice those skills.

About 6,000 people work at my company, Esri (Environmental Systems Research Institute).   Our headquarters is in southern California (Redlands), we have 10 regional offices in the USA and some smaller satellite offices, and more than 80 worldwide distributor offices.   We are the largest Geographic Information Systems (GIS) organization in the world and as such receive a lot of applications for every job we post.  If you are serious about making a positive difference on our planet with GIS, I encourage you to gain those skills and apply at Esri!

What are the five most important skills that a successful professional in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) should have? I have recorded a three-part video series (Part 1Part 2, and Part 3) wherein I address these skills.  I begin the video series by presenting two ways of thinking about GIS in your career:  (1) As a toolset that you use in your career as an environmental researcher, planner, biologist, public safety officer, marketing analyst, or in another career where GIS is listed only as a required or advised set of skills;  and (2) As a GIS manager, technician, analyst, or another career where GIS or a variant is a part of the title and primary job duties.

I see GIS as a three-legged stool, one that incorporates content knowledge, skills, and the geographic perspective.  In other words, the skills alone will not guarantee success, but are a fundamental part of it.  Equally important is the content knowledge–whether in GIScience, meteorology, energy, water resources, planning, or another field.  Finally, don’t be discouraged by my mention of the geographic perspective if you feel inadequate here.  It is one of the most interesting parts of the stool, and one that might take years to develop.  Indeed, as most things in GIS, it is a lifelong endeavor, which leads me to my #1 top skill:  I can’t give it away:  Watch the video to find out!

On Staying Motivated

Throughout my career, four things have kept me motivated.  First and foremost, choose something that you feel passionate about.  Then, every day at work, you don’t just have a job, you have a career.  You are working not just for a paycheck, or for quitting time, but for larger goals that can make long-term positive impacts on people and the planet.  In my field of geotechnology education, I feel that I am having a positive influence on research, partnerships, curriculum, educators, policymakers, and students, and that in itself keeps me motivated on a daily basis.

That’s not to say, though, that I don’t experience times when I need to work actively at staying motivated.  These times often occur for me at the start of a long project, such as a book I am committed to writing or a public relations campaign to universities.  So, the second thing that has kept me motivated, particularly during these times, is to keep an eye on the long-term goal, and think of the long-term impact and benefits that the project will have.  Thinking specifically on who will benefit and why and how they will do so can also provide energy.

Third, think of the project in smaller components, in weeks, days, or even just a few hours:  What can you accomplish by, say, noontime, today, on this project?  How will you measure that you have accomplished it?  Breaking up large projects into smaller pieces has helped me stay motivated.  Along with that, the fourth recommendation I have is to just start.  Sometimes, thinking about a project is more daunting than diving in and starting on it.  Just do it!  Yes, planning is important, but working hard and putting some tasks behind you can provide motivation to go on to the next steps.

Final Words:  Don’t Toss Your Brain

In my work in environmental education and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), I have seen many computer technologies and methods come and go.  In the video linked below, I discuss some of them, including punch cards, floppy disks, and CD-ROMs.  Yet one tool has remained vitally important in analyzing our world–your brain!  Making sense of our world through maps and spatial data is more important than ever.  As the deluge of data increases, it will be important in your career to think critically about data, understanding if and when to use it, evaluating its quality, managing error, and making decisions based on data.  Keep thinking! The point is:  Toss some tools, but don’t toss your brain!

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