A Career in Asking Questions with a Geographic Approach

05-25-2023 09:39 AM
Esri Contributor
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You don’t need a geography degree to get paid to talk about using a geographic approach across industries or to understand how to mitigate some of the most severe challenges of our time with a geographic information system (GIS)!

Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and epidemiology are a testament to this. The -ologies were helpful; they set the stage, so to speak, providing a viewpoint that sent my career path towards inquiry.  Truthfully, long before academia, I had many questions about the world and our modern Western social system, specifically where the system may have blocks, inefficiencies, and even gaps that could otherwise prevent sickness and low quality of life for so many.

Because I had more questions than answers, I knew that school was the place I needed to head, so off to college, I went. Although it seems like an obvious step from high school for many of you, I started this journey as a dropout, then a teen mom, so college was off my radar.

I was a hard worker, though, and the longer I worked, first in the service industry and then in social services, I kept accumulating more questions about our world and the state of our systems. In college, surrounded by the -ologies, I began understanding the pattern dynamics emerging from my ad-hoc queries, leading to a core set of questions that could only be answered spatially.


In academia, I encountered some unique and inspiring professors. The most influential for GIS was Dr. Sheila Lakshmi Steinberg and Dr. Steven Steinberg. Both were university professors starting a new course based on a book they co-authored, GIS for the Social Sciences.  I was in! I loved the idea of using a spatial-intelligence platform to provide information in a logical system. I did not know what a geographic information system (GIS) was then, nor did I know it would change my life forever!

Applied Experience: The Case for Participatory GIS

This one GIS course, along with my love of research and data exploration, allowed me to get my first paid student job on a GIS participatory research team for the Agricultural Workers Health Initiative (AWHI),. Check out more info here in the Resilient Communitie.... I was able to work side by side with excellent cartographers and help lead the qualitative portions of this initiative. We traveled throughout the agricultural lands of California, gathering stories of pesticide exposure in migrant communities to conduct participatory GIS. This was an immediate success and led to publications and presentations to inform decision-makers of opportunities for real change and to provide a precedent for using GIS to tell a community story and improve lives.

A few years later, I entered graduate school and continued as a Research Assistant, still exploring my top 5 spatial questions to the -ologies. I was the only person in the public health program with any experience in GIS. Yes, I still had only taken one class. But what I learned in that class, coupled with applied expertise and how to use location intelligence to communicate toward effective change, was still
very applicable.


                                                                                             Community Mapping at Simeto Valley Story Map  (Pappalardo 2017)

Making Effective Change with GIS

My graduate department chair asked me to create a map of food deserts in Washington, D.C., for a peer-reviewed paper she would submit. With my participatory GIS background and statistical knowledge, I could quickly link data and ground truth findings to ensure the story was accurate. We found that while many areas were deemed as having food in grocery stores, those stores carried no fresh food, only processed junk food.

Understanding your community and data are paramount to telling an accurate visual story; it is our responsibility as researchers and map makers. We were able to publish our work in a peer-reviewed journal. This article is still used in literature reviews as a precedent for mapping food insecurities and telling the story of the current food deserts within urban areas.

My previous experience in GIS, though minimal, left an impression and led to a paid graduate practicum experience with the State of Kentucky. I was the only applicant with any GIS experience, and while it had been some time since I had used GIS, I got the gig. (This is a reminder to brush up on those GIS skills.

The project focused on identifying if children hospitalized for asthma and those who tested positive for lead poisoning across the state had any geographic correlating factors. Returning to the top geographic approach questions, I explored the data story. This was no easy task as there was not one variable that could easily correlate both data sets. I was very intrigued by the conundrum.  The solution was, of course, a spatial answer; rural-urban classification codes! Regardless, this project told a powerful story that led to state officials passing housing ordinances targeting the areas with the most significant exposures. This experience allowed me to learn on the job and make positive changes, leading me to a job offer before graduating.

What I have learned and applied throughout my career is that place matters! My first out-of-grad school job was the Health Happens for All, and Health Happens Here initiatives funded by the California Endowment. They used zip codes to determine where to target preventive programmatic efforts across California. Your quality of life and life expectancy can be determined by zip code, so why not focus programs in the areas that need it most? I continued working in the health field and creating change through tribal health initiatives. I was interested in examining policy, systems, and environmental change toward disease prevention. Still using spatial thinking, I have brought the skills and knowledge of GIS in all my work as an advocate for our amazing technology and to open the doors for folks to ask questions that can only be answered through a geographic approach.

The roadless taken to advance a career supporting the field of GIS does not exist. Every academic and professional path I have explored over a few decades has included some perspective of a geographic approach. Geography is everywhere! They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and a map is worth a thousand pictures. Keep asking questions and use those maps to tell the data story.






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