More Than Just Mapping: One Student’s Experiences with GIS

A senior at Washington University, Austin Tolani has taken a number of courses focusing on geographic information systems (GIS) and is now pursuing a certificate in GIS at WashU. Tolani, who is majoring in economics and computer science, has applied his GIS skills at a variety of private, nonprofit, academic, and governmental organizations, including the Office of the Mayor for the City of St. Louis, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and Spire, a St. Louis-based utility company.

In honor of Geography Awareness Week, Dorris Scott, social science data curator and GIS librarian at Washington University Libraries, talked with Tolani about his experiences with GIS.

Senior Austin Tolani is enrolled in WashU’s Certificate in GIS program.

How did you get interested in GIS? I took a freshman Focus program called the Global Citizenship Program. One of the classes in the program was East Asia and the World, and it was all about territorial conflicts in East Asia. A section of the course was taught by Jennifer Moore [head of Data Services at the University Libraries]. We looked at territorial conflicts in Japan, and she introduced us to GIS as a tool that can help us understand these conflicts.

From there, I absolutely fell in love. I’ve sort of always had a passion for maps. As soon as Moore provided the basic tools, I saw how much you can do with GIS. I went on to take the introductory class here at WashU, Applications in GIS, and I just kept on learning more and applying it.

What kind of opportunities have come your way since you learned GIS? Right after I took that applications class, I worked for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, an environmental nonprofit in St. Louis. I was their Food Equity GIS intern, and they needed help with creating a foodshed map and a food access map to demonstrate some of the intersectionality of food access in St. Louis. I got to spend a whole semester really applying my GIS skills and learning about web mapping.

Then I started taking advanced GIS classes and decided that I wanted to get involved in the GIS certificate program at WashU. That’s uncommon for undergraduate students, because we usually don’t have the time, but because I was introduced to it freshman year, I was able to start taking those classes. As a result, I got a job at the Center for Social Development at the Brown School, working as a research assistant. I was part of a larger research group. We were looking at issues regarding voter access. I was the only GIS person in the room. I was actually able to get my name published as an author on the paper we wrote. I did all of the GIS analyses and all the cartographic products, and they’re all online.

Tolani has worked as a GIS intern at a variety of organizations.

I’ve had such positive experiences in the classes I’ve taken that I’ve been a teaching assistant for the advanced GIS class for two semesters. Last summer, I worked at Spire, a large national gas company in St. Louis. I was on a larger team of GIS analysts, specialists, managers, and the company took a ton of resources into the GIS department. So it was really cool to learn what applications GIS has at an enterprise scale and to explore some of the opportunities that came up that way.

Can you describe a recent project that you worked on? How did you incorporate GIS into the project? Working at Spire, my big project for the summer was to redesign the process of reporting damages. It’s a big company with a lot of infrastructure, so every now and then, their pipelines will get damaged. In the past, they had a damage form, and they would go to the site, fill it out, take the form, and drive it to the foreman, who would enter it into a computer.

I used one of ESRI’s field apps called Survey123 and redesigned the process so that they now fill out the damage report completely on their phone, and the information is sent to a server, and a Python script runs and scrapes all the data from the submission and then sends the email out to the relevant form with all the information. With regard to GIS, that’s a particular example where the spatial data is a geographical problem. Survey123 captures location data, so I was able to build an operations dashboard that allows them, in real time, to zoom in on a particular area, see what damages have happened, and do a visual analysis of whether the damages are clustering.

What advice do you have for students who want to develop their GIS skills? If they’re just starting out, the best thing to do is take the Applications of GIS class, which is taught by Karen DeMatteo. If you take the class and really like it, then finding real world-experience is important, because most GIS work is done at institutions. I was very fortunate. I was able to see how GIS works at a nonprofit and in academia. Getting an idea of how GIS fits into a larger workflow is really important.

There are a ton of upper-level, more specific GIS classes available at WashU. I’m a computer science major, and I was interested in how GIS relates to programming. I took a GIS Programming class taught by Mollie Webb [GIS Programmer at Washington University Libraries]. I’m also really interested in the public sector side of GIS, and right now I’m in a Public Sector Applications of GIS class.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.


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