Giving Back

Sharing knowledge is my passion, whether it be training a group of Planners how to use GIS, or showing maps to an elementary school class.  GIS Day 2010 at Old Dominion University and Tidewater Community College gave me an excellent opportunity to share what I do with college students and professionals in my community, who are either curious about GIS or came to share their knowledge as well.  It also allowed me to show possible career opportunities to students who might be considering private companies or want to know more about federal jobs.  For me personally, the experience fostered many new connections and I saw some outstanding examples of how GIS can be used in many different ways:

  • The Joint Forces are using GIS technology to develop gaming platforms for training soldiers in the field.  Today’s group of young enlisted personnel, and officers alike, have a much higher tendency to learn from playing a game with real-life scenarios rather than sitting in a room with someone who is simply reciting words from slides (fascinating use of GIS!).  This gave me great ideas for the notion of “gaming” in the virtual workplace, and how GIS has gone from modeling the world outside to also including the inside of the building.
  • Several presentations were specifically geared towards students looking for jobs out there in the GIS world.  It is amazing how this field has grown from job postings that simply ask for GIS skills (generic GIS person needed) to such a wide variety of positions with different skill levels: analysts, technicians, data capture specialists, programmers, software developers, environmental scientists, system administrators, engineers, etc.

Most presentations, however, were simple showcases of how GIS is used in different organizations and the variety there is awe-inspiring as well. I was fortunate to attend a presentation by Professor Tom Chapman from Old Dominion at both events about the idea of “Community GIS”, which stems from the notion of equal access for all people to GIS technology.  As part of my graduate studies, I took a course called “GIS and Society”, which was an open discussion forum about the use of GIS to better the communities in which we live and the sense of involvement and civic duty to use one’s skills for this purpose.  Volunteer time was required for my program and I spent it with a non-profit organization, where I set up a GIS database of vacant land parcels and helped develop a model for site location for their housing efforts.  This type of analysis would not have been available to that particular organization because they simply didn’t have anyone who knew how to use such technology and certainly could not afford to hire an analyst, even a starving grad student.  Once I developed the database and showed the board of directors how to use their free license for ArcView (back in the 3x days), they were able to form questions and realize the power of the tool with which I had enabled them.  Professor Chapman is promoting the same type of idea to both students and professionals in the area to volunteer a small amount of time to give back to their community and create some good analysis that will help in some way.  I first heard the presentation on Wednesday and by Friday he already had two non-profit groups approach him with ideas they have for using GIS.

In today’s busy life, it is easy to forget how important mentors and role models were to us as we were coming along in school.  I advocate public speaking at a university if for nothing else than to show someone the possibility of jobs they did not know existed previously.  As an undergraduate college student just learning the ropes of GIS, I did not know the wide range of career paths that would be available to me with this important skill set.  I didn’t know that GIS would be such a crucial skill to have in the area I wanted to pursue.  And I certainly did not know how wide-spread the use of GIS was even way back then.  My only outlets for meeting GIS professionals were the state user conferences through ESRI and on-the-job contacts.  Having a GIS Day full of professionals would have helped me immensely and shown me there was more than just a computer programmer desk job out there for my love of GIS!  To this day, some of the most influential folks in my career have been those who have taken the time to speak at career days and local professional groups to share their own experiences.  Do not underestimate the contribution you could make through sharing your story at a user group meeting or being involved in a college career day.

As the holiday season approaches, and the spirit of giving rings throughout the world, I challenge everyone to think about how their skills could be useful in the community in which they live.  GISi presents us with a wonderful opportunity to give back and volunteer our time, while matching us with paid time off.  What an awesome chance to not only develop our skills in ways we might not have thought of before, but also to make a difference (even if it is small), in the world around us.

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