Esri Community Member Spotlight: Brandon Adcock

03-27-2023 12:44 PM
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This monthly series of member spotlights features you and your peers here in Esri Community—the people playing a role in finding solutions, sharing ideas, and collaborating to solve problems with GIS. We’re doing this to recognize amazing user contributions, to example how Esri Community’s purpose is being brought to life, and to bring depth to this group of incredible people who may never meet in person, but who benefit from each other’s generous expertise.


Investigating Foodborne Illness


Every year, 48 million people in the U.S. are sickened by foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Of those, about 128,000 cases will be severe enough to lead to hospitalization. 3,000 will sadly result in death. This according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statistics like these are familiar for Brandon Adcock (@BrandonA_CDPH) who is Senior Environmental Scientist for the Emergency Response Unit of the California Department of Public Health’s Food and Drug Branch. He and his unit investigate foodborne illness outbreaks across the state while collaborating with other state teams to make sure that California’s food and food products are safe for consumption.

And with over a third of the United States' vegetables and three-quarters of the country’s fruits and nuts being grown in the Golden State (source:, not to mention its abundance of animal products, California’s role as the largest state producer of agriculture in the U.S. means that foodborne pathogens originating there don’t necessarily stay there. The job that Brandon helps shoulder has serious implications and at scale reaching far beyond the borders of his home state.

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Distribution map showing the source and destination of product associated with an E. coli outbreak

 The impacts of his work are not lost on Brandon. While speaking with him he emits a presence that’s both calm and attentive. There’s an observational quality in his words as well as the suggestion of inherent buoyancy found in small grins after having shared a thought. It’s not difficult to spot signs of Brandon’s character that explain how he—someone who’d joined the California Department of Health with no formal GIS training—successfully made a career jump from high school educator to investigate food borne illnesses before going on to champion GIS as a fundamental tool in those investigations.


Learning ArcGIS


Brandon graduated from CSU Sacramento in 2005, having studied microbiology. He spent his early career in biotechnology and teaching high school science. Some repeated career setbacks, including the frustration of layoffs, led Brandon to realize he was ready to move on to something new.

After applying to a number of different jobs with his home state of California, there was a hit. In 2012, Brandon was hired as an Inspector to investigate foodborne illness outbreaks and food contamination events in the Food and Drug branch’s Emergency Response Unit.

From the get-go, maps played a role in Brandon’s work. He and his unit would make maps—mostly hand sketches—to aid in their investigations. They even had some handheld GPS units that he remembers as being outdated and “clunky” for the time.

“ All I knew was GIS data and maps were helping to make better
decisions and ultimately protect public health and prevent illnesses.
I just kept going and learning more as I could. ”

Perhaps it’s in part due to his observant nature that Brandon spotted a problem. Spatial information was an important part of his unit’s work, but the tools they used could only do so much. There wasn’t an organized GIS for the geospatial data his unit would collect. Even if there had been, no one had enough time to make full use of it.

With his GIS knowledge limited to GPS and map use during favorite pastimes of hiking and geocaching, Brandon set his intimidation aside and began opening ArcMap between projects to see what more could be done with the investigation data they were collecting.

“I made maps and analyzed whatever I could get my hands on and had the time to work with. Simple things, like putting a rectangle area on a map and using hillshade basemap to see drainage patterns or using the data from our GPS cameras to put points on a map of interesting observations.”

Brandon was driven by the knowledge that GIS could enable new, more powerful ways of achieving food safety.

“All I knew was GIS data and maps were helping make better decisions and ultimately protect public health and prevent illness. I just kept going and learning more as I could.”


Making the Case for GIS


Brandon faced more than one uphill climb in the pursuit to get GIS’s value recognized in his workplace. Not only did his mission have to fit in piecemeal around his regular work investigating outbreaks, but he was attempting to learn ArcGIS tools without the benefit of a formal education or local mentors who could offer guidance. If Brandon could manage to clear both of those obstacles, he’d face a final challenge of convincing others to help make his vision a reality.

“ The Esri Community has definitely been my primary source of
training, I’ll say, for GIS work. I know I can always go in there.
I can put in a question and I will get an answer. ”

Brandon is quick to point to Esri Community as one of the first resources he was introduced to and identifies the crucial role it’s played in helping him navigate the ins-and-outs of ArcGIS.

“The Esri Community has definitely been my primary source of training, I’ll say, for GIS work. I know I can always go in there. I can put in a question and I will get an answer.”

As his familiarity with ArcGIS gradually grew over the course of several years, Brandon began evangelizing the benefits he was uncovering. He’d engage everyone he could—managers, co-workers, Assistant Directors, federal partners … anyone who would listen—that GIS could provide valuable insights beyond what was possible with their usual tabular data and written reports.

With a host of examples in hand, he persuaded his managers to create a new position within his unit; one that remained immersed in outbreaks and food contamination events, but with an explicit focus on data collection systems and GIS.

In 2019, seven years into his work with the State of California, Brandon was promoted to Senior Environmental Scientist, the role he currently fills. In this position, he’s charged with looking at outbreaks and food contamination from a spatial perspective while continuing to improve the Emergency Response Unit’s digital data collection and visualization tools.

His assurance on the importance of GIS in this field has only grown with time.

“Maps, surveys, and dashboards are powerful tools that need dedicated attention to help us in our mission to prevent illnesses in Californians and all people who eat food from California.”


An Always Present Community


Having successfully made the case for GIS and earning himself a role administering it, Brandon has settled into the routine of his current job duties. He describes his ArcGIS skills in humble terms and that the need for help from a greater community of GIS peers and pros leads him back to Esri Community regularly.

“ No matter how specific or complex, I know I’ll get
the answer I need from the Esri Community. ”

It’s not difficult for Brandon to conjure examples of Esri Community members making a meaningful difference to his work.

Brandon recalls a recent instance in which he found himself struggling with a monster of his own making. He’d cobbled together a process that allowed him to download and file photos from an online feature service from ArcGIS Survey123. Through the process, Brandon would move and rename photos of every sample his unit collected during outbreak events. This could easily encompass hundreds of photos and had to be repeated every time new samples were gathered. Manually, it could take hours to complete.

Using the process he designed, the work could be done faster, but its complexity and the number of steps involved meant that it was still burdensome—never working quite the same way twice.

“It was a Frankenstein of a process,” Brandon reflected. “But I was able to go on to the Esri Community. I asked if anyone else had this.”

A little searching revealed what Brandon was after. An openly shared Python script from Community MVP @DougBrowning was just what Brandon wanted. Using that script as the framework for a slightly modified ArcGIS Pro task, he was able to get a vastly more efficient process that meets his needs while simplifying procedures for others involved. Brandon credits Doug and the community of users with making that possible.

As Brandon and the team at the California Department of Health persist in their important work of preventing and responding to foodborne illness, Brandon is reassured by the knowledge that Esri Community and the support of his GIS peers found there will be a continual aid when needed.

Voice confident, Brandon assures, “No matter how specific or complex, I know I’ll get the answer I need from the Esri Community.”

200x200_Brandon Adcock_Circular Image_With Buffer.pngBrandon Adcock is Senior Environmental Scientist for the Emergency Response Unit of the California Department of Public Health’s Food and Drug Branch. During his decade plus career with this unit, Brandon has participated in and led many investigations designed to protect public health from foodborne illness. After championing the role of GIS in this work, Brandon now specializes in developing and improving tools for digital data collection and in using geospatial intelligence to better understand how location is related to food contamination events.

About the Author
I'm a Community Manager focused on Engagement & Content here at Esri. My guiding ethos is that community — people coming together around shared purpose, demonstrating collective support, and collaborating in mutually beneficial ways — is the most powerful source for progress in the world. I'm at your service as we make great things happen through GIS.