When I first told my friends I was switching my major from computer science to geography, they seemed pretty confused. What do you do with a geography degree? was a question I got used to hearing, and I became pretty skilled at answering it. And good thing, too, because now that I’m in the geospatial tech/cartography world, the questions I receive from new friends are similar. Isn’t everything already mapped? What do cartographers even do? It is with joy each time I give my requisite response:
“Geography is everywhere…literally. If you think hard enough, every problem has at least a tangential spatial component.”
Nowhere is this more true than in government, from agencies as small in scope as neighborhood associations to those as large as federal programs. I saw this clearly during my last position as a GIS Technician at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. One of my duties included meeting with local government stakeholders in a variety of towns in Oregon to discuss the work we would be doing for them in the coming years to remap floodplains in their communities for FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Many of the communities we worked with are located on the coast and near large rivers, and they were no strangers to the issues around flooding and flood insurance in their communities. As such, it was surprising to see how many of these communities were impressed when learning about the geographic tools available to them to help make sense of some of their issues. When we would outline our process and discuss the types of problems that can be solved with simple geographic analysis, they were floored.
Why do government agencies have trouble understanding things in a geographic way? For the same reason my friends had trouble, we don’t typically practice it. When I explain to my friends that maps can be used for more than just navigation, or even that features on the earth are changing all the time, they understand quickly how “cartographer” is still a career path. Similarly, when we explained to local governments the wide variety of spatial analysis that can be conducted, they understood quickly how geography could help them solve some of their biggest problems.
This is why I’m coding for America. I believe that every Code for America fellow has a unique perspective that influences their solutions to problems. My spatial-first perspective has the potential to help solve myriad issues that arise every day in local communities. I couldn’t be more excited to bring this perspective to Lexington and any other city I have the opportunity to work with!