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Shepard Erik2“So, what do you do?”—it’s the dreaded question whenever I meet someone new. Dreaded because I can’t really sum up what I do to myself, let alone to someone else. How I answer often depends on my level of investment with the person.

“So, what do you do?”—it’s the dreaded question whenever I meet someone new. Dreaded because I can’t really sum up what I do to myself, let alone to someone else. How I answer often depends on my level of investment with the person.

Sometimes I’ll simply say that I work with geographic information systems. Then I’ll get that blank look, and I’ll quickly fill in with an explanation that it’s something like Google Maps. Usually that’s enough for the other party to decide they’ve got enough information, nod knowingly, and wander away for more hors d’oeuvres. That’s the easiest answer, but it also does the greatest disservice to me and to my profession. It’s also not completely accurate, because it disregards things like wireless sensor networks or GPS/GNSS that are also an important part of my work life.

Domain Focus

Sometimes I will start with the domain and ask the question, “have you seen the GE smart grid commercials?” Most people have, so then I will say that I work with clients to build the platform and data for the network model that powers the smart grid. I will explain how the network model helps utilities to model the location and connectivity of their assets, and how that’s helping to model what happens when distributed and renewable generation is connected to the grid, because the grid is designed as one-way only: source to sink. 

I’ll explain how it helps utilities to manage outages by detecting and correcting outage situations automatically (a DMS application called Fault Localization, Isolation and Service Restoration – or FLISR), or how it helps route crews and manage logistics. And I will explain how the network model is key for power efficiency computations like Volt-VAR optimization (or VVO), which helps utilities figure out how to optimize volts delivered without jeopardizing power quality. This one takes a lot of investment, so it’s usually reserved for people who might want to know more or who have some knowledge of their own about the power industry.

The IT Slant

Sometimes I’ll start with the IT slant, and self-identify as a project manager, or on the more technical side as a systems integrator – maybe in special cases clarifying my role as a geotech project manager, or a geotech systems integrator. But there are so many variations on that theme – is it GIS, geospatial, geotech? One we hear more and more lately is geomatics engineering. And when we say geotech, people usually think we mean geologist – while geomatics engineer sounds like surveyor – a related but not tautological field. 

Sometimes I’ll also identify location technology, or field technology alternatively – two related fields that touch closely. Indeed, field technology and location based services are critical technologies for utilities – particularly for mobile workforce management, both for ongoing sustainment operations and for capital investment deployments in the field – think smart meters, or intelligent electronic devices. And sometimes I will just punt, and tell people I’m a management consultant – that I do project planning, strategy, field deployment planning – maybe referencing the use of spatial tools and data to determine benefits optimization based on demographics, climate or proximity to network. That one’s the easiest, because then people can go straight for the hors d’oeuvres without the blank stare.

Other Roles

Of course there are many other “geo” roles – developer, analyst, architect, database administrator – roles that have traditional IT analogues. Many folks that I know in the industry have equally given up on trying to delineate between a traditional developer and a geospatial developer who is grounded in things like projections and map algebra, or between a traditional DBA and a geospatial DBA who has a good understanding of a spatial index like an R-Tree.

I can’t help thinking that this confusion – even in our own minds – is not helpful for the profession. For all the success and uptake the geospatial systems have seen in the last ten years, for the ubiquitization through applications like Google Maps, and the reliance on technologies like Location Based Services to find the nearest Starbucks, it still stands apart. It still requires specialized training in geography or in the application area – most often civil engineering. 

In an earlier role, one of the responsibilities that I had was to hire developers for a GIS project. The quandary I always had was whether to hire a developer and teach them GIS, or to hire someone with a GIS background and teach them to develop. Of course, that was fifteen years ago and in those days, it was much easier to teach someone Visual Basic 6 than to teach everything they needed to know about geography. Today technology is much more advanced, and fluid, so the question is not so easy. 


The fact remains that geotechnology is every bit as specialized a discipline as biotechnology – no one in their right mind would hire a developer without at least a class in organic chemistry. But that discipline is much more well-defined, and one measure of that fact is that it’s easy to explain. It’s not necessary to have a background in genetics to understand what the goals of biotechnology are, and to understand that it’s a specialized discipline – say biotechnology, and people at least have an idea.

Another measure of the lack of an identity is the veritable alphabet soup of professional organizations—GITA, URISA, ASPRS, ACSM. Even IEEE has a Geoscience and Remote Sensing society. In recent years, the number of organizations have started to dwindle, pulling back on their missions and reorganizing as in the case of GITA, or consolidating as in the case of ACSM, who has been working to create a unified organization with NSPS. There are many specializations within the geotechnology field, and as many or more professional organizations as there are specializations. This doesn’t serve to create a sense of identity. I remember even in graduate school that the “GIS guys” didn’t hang with the “remote sensing guys”. But perhaps more importantly, it also doesn’t give our profession a unified lobbying front. Our professional organizations speak at best for a subset of the profession.

So, for now, I will continue with what has become my life’s burden, to concisely describe the work that I enjoy in such a way that I can convey to others a sense both of that work and that enjoyment. I hope that we aren’t too far off from figuring out our geo identity, individually and collectively.

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