- Name: Josh Schane
- Age: 29
- Job Title: GIS (geographic information system) analyst for FLO Analytics / Maul Foster Alongi
- Job Description: Digital cartographer
- Location: Portland, Oregon
Tell me about the path that led you to where you are today.
I majored in geography at the University of Oregon. I took pretty much every GIS class they offered and then after I graduated I did a few different GIS internships. I worked for both a county and a city in Oregon — most municipal organizations have a GIS department. There’s a geographic layer for streets, property boundaries — you name it, it’s been mapped. And it takes people like me to keep those data sets updated. We pull in different sets of data and overlay them to make various types of maps.
What’s the difference between GIS and cartography?
Cartography is basically the art of map making, which has been around for centuries. But with the dawn of computers and the Internet, everything has been digitized and geographic information science (GIS) translated into software. The “S” in GIS is variable, sometimes it stands for science and sometimes it stands for systems so the software itself is a geographic information system that handles geospatial data and can render maps in a digital format.
A science background is obviously necessary but is there also an artistic element to mapmaking?
My mom is actually an art teacher so I grew up in a pretty artistic household. My dad is a phone technician. I feel like I have a combination of artistic skills but also scientific interests as well. GIS is cool because it allows me to be creative but it also has some pretty in-depth analysis.
For example, we’ll map the projections for school districts — that’s a pretty heavy geographic analysis. We actually come up with our own methodology to predict how many students could be enrolled in a certain district within 10 or 20 years based on census demographic data. That’s just one example of higher end analysis.
Your company specializes in environmental maps, right?
Yes, Maul Foster & Alongi is an environmental consulting company and engineering firm. Our bread and butter is the clean up for contaminated industrial sites. We’ll take a site from a phase one environmental study through remedial design and then the implantation of the strategy to clean up whatever contamination is on site. We actually have urban planners that can help redevelop the site so we can take it through the whole process. Our GIS team is tasked to visualize all the data and provide maps, figures, reports, and presentations. We kind of do a lot of different things but most of the maps that we make will support those environmental operations like hot spot analysis where we’re mapping contaminants in soil or groundwater. Those maps help our engineers and scientists determine where the majority of the problem is and come up with a strategy from there. Those visualizations are really handy and when we have to put together reports for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) or other government organizations that require these sort of studies.
What the most important quality a GIS analyst needs to possess?
Like any digital job, you’ve got to know the software. And then like I said earlier, GIS is data driven so knowing how to handle different data sets while also making good maps. I mean you could put together a really high-end analysis project but your maps could look like crap. It’s a combination of really knowing the software and the data, but also knowing your audience and who’s going to be reading the map so you can cater the scale and style to them.
The new type of mapping that we’re doing is all web based — Google Maps is the most popular web map that you’ll see. Being able to pan, zoom, search for things, and interact with the map — those are the features that we are rolling out to our clients. We want to give them the ability to put the map on their web page or tell a story with a web map. Again, it’s catering to the specific audience and need of the client. I would say the most important skill is really knowing your audience and knowing who’s going to be using the maps.
Is digitalization the future of mapmaking?
Well I think we are on to something good here. GIS is really popular. I’m actually in grad school at Portland State right now getting my masters in geography. I’m taking all these classes and there are 50 plus people in some of the GIS classes — it’s really the most popular profession now for geography majors. It’s where the money is, especially with smart phones and mobile apps using a ton of map based plugins. For example, Uber has a really sophisticated backend GIS system that’s all location based with routing and real-time tracking. We’re also seeing software developers coming in — they really don’t know GIS but they know enough to get around. There’s two ends of the spectrum: there’s the old school cartographer who makes more artistic maps, then there’s the middle which is GIS analysts who make maps with digital data, then there’s the software developers who do more programming and toning for the backend maps.
What’s the normal path to become a GIS analyst? Is it mostly geography majors?
Traditionally most GIS analysts majored in geography but you’ll see environmental science majors, urban planners, even some biologist take the GIS route. When we hire somebody, we’re looking for one or two years of experience. Like I said, I did a few internships and that really helped me build my skill set so when I got hired at MFA about five years ago I really had a good background knowledge and was able to acclimate pretty well.
What types of projects do you work on in your GIS classes?
My research project is actually going to be using drones to do mapping. We’re bringing that data into GIS and creating our own maps on top of these really high-resolution aerial photos. It’s actually kind of an old school technique — the Army Corps of Engineers used to fly over the U.S. with cameras and take photos. You can take two overlapping photos and set them side by side and it can create this 3D model of the terrain. It’s a pretty old school technique but now we have really awesome software that can take a bunch of overlapping photos from a drone or aerial photography flight or even a satellite imagery data set and then we can actually generate a highly accurate 3D model of a site. We can use that 3D data for spatial analysis.
That’s really interesting.
Yeah! It’s a totally new endeavor for our company. It’s a whole new thing that I’m taking the lead on and I’m translating it into my work as a master’s student. I’m going to focus on tsunami mapping. We can use 3D data to basically determine which structures, bridges, roads, etc. would be effected if a tsunami were to hit a coastal environment. It’s interesting that I’m choosing this now because in Oregon there’s all this talk about the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that’s supposed to happen any time. People are freaking out about it, especially these coastal communities — they are starting to plan for it. Right now the tsunami maps are like 20 years old so there’s a real need for this sort of new data. I am hypothesizing that I can use a drone and pretty much do the same as when they fly over in a plane and shoot a laser at the ground to create a model of the earth (LIDAR). But that way is really expensive and takes a lot of close processing. Basically, I’m going to prove that you can do it easier and cheaper with the drone and still generate the same results.
I was going to ask you about a project that you’re particularly proud of — that seems like the one.
Yeah it’s definitely cool. It’s a totally new technology that’s really taking off. Companies are applying for these FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) permits that allow you to fly commercially and legally — right now the FAA says you can’t fly a drone for commercial use. Our company is in the process of getting approval so in the meantime I’m working on my masters in the subject. I’m definitely proud of it. I think it’s cool that we can use the technology to gain new perspectives that you can’t get from traditional surveys. But in terms of other projects that I’m proud of, I know that I’m a pretty talented cartographer in terms of map design so the projects that I’m usually the proudest of are the custom shaded relief maps I’ve made. I’ve actually been making them as wedding presents for my friends.
That’s a great gift. Tell me more about those maps.
All my best friends have chosen cool locations to get married or they have a cool backstory that I map. For example, I made a map of the Puget Sound for my two friends from Washington. I put a heart where each of them are from and then I created a custom color ramp that stretches over the terrain. I used a purple and green motif because she’s a husky (University of Washington) and he’s a duck (University of Oregon). That’s more of the creative side of GIS and cartography that I’m really excited about. Those are some of my favorite maps that I get to make.
Tell me more about the software and the mapmaking process.
A project I was working on today was for a phase one environmental study. They require a basic site location map, a site features map, and then they have this historical aerial photo index that you need to put together. Every point in the entire world has an X and a Y (a longitude and latitude) so the data layers and imagery we bring in are all georeferenced — meaning it’s tied to a particular point on this digital model of the earth. You can bring in an aerial imagery layer, zoom to your site, and then basically bring in the data on top of that basemap. We’ll bring in a street layer that I’ll use mostly for labeling because each of the geographic layers in the data set will have attribute information, which is essentially an attached spreadsheet. Each feature will have information associated with it in this table and then we’ll bring in boundaries with property information, who owns it, how many acres it is, what the address is, etc. I have all this information at my fingertips so that I can effectively label properties and streets. Then I’ll bring in a zoning layer that shows me more about the property and adjacent lots. That’s the basic property overview map that will give someone a better idea of what’s around their site.
How long did that project take?
Phase one projects are pretty quick — I could get them done in half a day. The aerial photo portion takes a bit longer because you have to download all these photos and you manually georeference those. You’ve got your imagery layer that’s already georeferenced and then I’m literally tying that photo with tie points. I’ll look at the old photo and find a feature that’s currently on the new photo and then I’ll place a tie point there. Then I’ll place a tie point on the new photo and do that a few times until it actually snaps that historical image and it gives it geospatial information that makes it fit to my map.
This process is all software based?
All software. The only cool hardware we use is the drone. The software is called ArcMap and the company that makes it, ESRI, is the biggest GIS company in the world.
Is there anything that you dislike about your job?
It can get a little taxing dealing with software issues. And also the data don’t always line up correctly; understanding map projections: how we fit a two-dimensional surface over a 3D plane can be tough. These are everyday perplexing issues that we have to problem solve
Question from the last interviewee: Was there anyone telling you that you shouldn’t pursue the career you’re in?
Well I look at a lot of my friends and one was a political science major and now he sells wine for a living. One was a history major and now he sells software. My other buddy was a Spanish major and now he’s a professional photographer. I’m one of the few people I know who actually stuck to the niche I studied in school, and everyone I talk to seems stoked for me about that. Some people were skeptical because they didn’t know if I’d be able to get a job since GIS is a fairly new field, but I feel lucky because I’m passionate about what I do and it helps keep my motivated.
What one question do you want the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs to answer?
Do you see yourself doing this in 20 years?
Good question. I’m curious to hear your answer.
I think I’m in a good place with all this new drone technology coming out and our ability to gather data for our existing clients and also market it to potential clients. And also, I love making maps!