Welcome to the inaugural “Profiles from the Geospatial Community“. Each month will feature a quick interview with a notable member of the geospatial community. I’m proud to present Adena Schutzberg as the first profile in the series. Ms. Schutzberg is a prominent presence in the geospatial media, most currently as the Executive Editor of Directions Magazine. She is the major contributor for Direction Magazine’s All Points Blog which is one of the “go to” resources for news and valuable information about the geospatial industry. She wears many hats as a member of the geospatial community including her own consulting firm and as a Senior Lecturer at Penn State University’s Online Master of GIS program.
Let’s start with how you got involved with GIS. What drew you to this industry?
I wasn’t one of those people who spent their childhood looking at maps; in fact I really wanted to study hard science, chemistry in particular, in college. But, when I got to my second year, I found out that the physics course I selected was above my head, and I ended up dropping it. When I looked for something to fill in my next quarter I found a course in the geography department with a terrific rating that dealt with water issues. I enjoyed it (and was good at it!) and managed to leave college with all the credentials for degrees in both chemistry and geography. I lucked out and got a first job that linked the two together: I worked at a consulting firm and did some the mapping of sediment samples collected in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. That’s really when I fell in love with the technology and what it could do.
How has how you’ve explained what GIS is changed over the past couple of years?
Like many people back in 1990s, I’m sure, I’d say GIS is “like MapQuest,” even though I knew that simple definition gave neither MapQuest nor GIS due credit! Later on, I tried to focus more on geography as the basis for the technology. I’d ask people to consider why their city was located where it was or why the garbage trucks travelled those particular routes. The conclusion I hoped they’d reach: that those things are decided based on geography – and GIS is a tool to help make the best decisions. I’m very excited that now GIS, like geography, is being used to answer not just the basic questions of geography: “What is where? Why?” but also the most important one, “So what?”
How do you stay on top of reporting geospatial news items for Directions Magazine and what do you enjoy most about reporting on GIS?
Staying on top of the news for an organization of our size is a challenge! I only work for Directions part time and I need to be efficient. I’ve found that automation can only do so much. I don’t use Google Alerts, but rather depend on detailed queries of news sites which I review in detail each day. I try not to be too focussed on the top results; often the news treasures are truly hidden. The other great source I have is readers who send me tips.
There are two things I love about reporting on this industry. First, you do not know what’s going to happen on any given day. Literally the day after I decided to launch GIS Monitor back in 1990, GE Acquired Smallworld – so that was the top story! Second, there’s always new tech to discover and understand. I truly enjoy teasing out exactly how something works and sharing that understanding with others.
What’s the one direction that you would like to see GIS evolve towards?
I don’t know if its a direction, really, but I’m very interested in user interface design. It seems to me that GIS evolved with such a focus on the technical user that an elegant, intuitive design was never a clear goal. I’m hopeful that users and developers pay more attention to this aspect. (Those interested in user interface design should read Mucki Hackley’s blog: http://povesham.wordpress.com/ )
As someone who also teaches GIS at the college level, what advice do you give to those students looking to develop a career in GIS?
I have taught college, but I currently teach in a graduate program. I encourage my students to find that aspect of GIS or another field that gets them excited. If they think they like GIS, I push them to consider what part they: Making the maps? Developing the models or analysis? Building applications? Making great datasets? Teaching others how to use the technology? If they found GIS from another area – say forestry or business – I encourage them to explore how can they push forward the use of the technology in their chosen field.
I encourage students to become good communicators. The results of geographic thinking and GIS require showing maps, explaining how they were developed or convincing others of a way forward. Doing that means more than making an effective map or application, it requires introducing the products (maps or apps) and processes and guiding others through them – in writing or orally. I had my college students in World Regional Geography give oral reports; they hated it at first, but many thanked me later – especially those for whom English was a second language. These days I have my graduate students make five minute videos they share with their classmates. In short, I suggest students find what aspect of GIS or your chosen field you love and practice becoming a great communicator about it!
Any other thoughts or comments you’d like to add?
I get asked now and then by my running friends if there’s some connection between geography and running. I do know many geographers and GIS folks who run, and when we get together we typically talk running before GIS! Is there a special “connection with the earth that geographers like?” a doctor friend once asked. I think there’s something to that. I also think we like the idea of the friction of distance and knowing what 3 or 5 or 10 or 26.2 miles “feels like.”