Sarah Taigel is a GIS/Fluvial Specialist, and she’s sat down with me to share her insights into what a career path in geography and GIS looks like.
Sarah has been involved in geospatial and geospatial technologies for over two decades — since the early days of GIS.
Her Ph.D. was titled “Spatial technologies to support the landscape-scale approach to catchment management.” It looked at a wide range of spatial technologies, from augmented reality to virtual reality with GIS in the background and dynamic and 3D Digital hubs. She looked at how to use those with stakeholders, virtual reality story maps, virtual walkthroughs, and citizen science. She covered a range of spatially related technologies, investigated how stakeholders use those and which was the most used going forward.
WHY DO YOU CALL YOURSELF A PROFESSIONAL GEOGRAPHER AND NOT A GIS ANALYST OR A GEOSPATIAL EXPERT?
Before my master’s and Ph.D., I would have described myself as a GIS analyst — doing IT-heavy GIS jobs.
Once I started doing my master’s, I became aware that I could bring in the geography I did at GCSE and A level into my GIS work. I could approach projects and jobs from a unique perspective.
I became more focused on being a geographer who had a wide range of understanding of GIS.
Post Ph.D., both those hats have been important to me. One, the geospatial and the GIS hat, and two, the river work, the catchment, and the geography of the landscape hat.
They are different, and I wear them regularly.
IS YOUR SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE IN GEOGRAPHY AN ADVANTAGE?
I have a GIS background, which I fell into unexpectedly. When I went from GIS into geography and the rivers I work on, GIS transformed into an incredible tool that I use all the time.
DO YOU THINK SOMETIMES WE FOCUS TOO MUCH ON THE TOOLS WE USE?
There is a distinction in GIS between the people who use the tools with their knowledge and the people who develop those tools with a view on how the client will use them.
I started out developing GIS products and environments for people and professionals to use. Then, I became more interested in why they used that data and how they were using my tools in those ways.
That led me to the opposite side of the GIS divide, if there is a divide. Now I use GIS as a tool without involvement in the development and the programming.
DO YOU SEE EQUAL AMOUNTS OF OPPORTUNITY FOR THE TECHNICAL AND THE GEOGRAPHY GIS ROUTES?
The GIS analyst path may be easier to understand and get into because it marries up with the existing IT pathways. I didn’t find it easy to carve out a career as a geographer, but then that could have been because I was asking in the wrong places.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO DO A PH.D.?
When I was at school, I always liked geography and science, and I was lucky to have excellent teachers for both subjects. I disliked math, though. And yet, I ended up in a career where I use all three of them every day.
As a hobby, I did conservation work on rivers and on The Broads, which are wetland environments in Norfolk, England, where I live. I fell in love with the conservation of rivers and their morphology.
I studied environmental science and geography during my GCSEs and A Levels, followed by physical geography as an undergrad.
At that point, the career advisors couldn’t suggest what I should do, and I was left floating. I had no proper direction. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with this geography degree.
So I got a job as an IT desktop engineer, working at an insurance group on their IT help desk. It was meant to be a short-term thing while I worked out what to do with my life.
But I discovered that I enjoyed talking to people and coming up with solutions. I enjoyed explaining technical things in an accessible and understandable way to somebody else on the other end of the phone.
That was the start of the IT element of my career. I worked for local governments for over eight years developing and supporting enterprise-scale GIS systems across multiple platforms with hundreds of users.
I started as a technician and worked my way up to be a lead on a wide range of projects that improved data quality and allowed the public to look at the available data.
Data like where to find their local school, what catchment they lived in, or when was their rubbish recycling day. All of this information was held in the local government databases, and now people could see it and use it to find out stuff.
That was a very prescribed path. Many desktop engineers end up in IT positions, while I ended up in GIS.
I became interested in why this data was working the way it was and how users work with this information.
I made the jump from the GIS background to the geography of landscape and how data is collected.
YOU ENDED UP ON THE TECH SIDE OF GEOSPATIAL AS A GEOGRAPHER
I was a geographer, and I wanted to do geography, but I didn’t really know how to get there. There didn’t seem to be a career path or another degree to do.
I needed a job.
I started off as a technician at the bottom of the ladder and found that I enjoyed this side of things.
DID BEING A GEOGRAPHER BENEFIT YOU AS OPPOSED TO THE TECHNICAL PEOPLE WHO WERE LEARNING THE GEOGRAPHICAL SIDE OF THINGS?
It was easier to understand what the clients needed.
Suppose a client wanted a piece of analysis on how many villages are along a bus route. In that case, an IT person might take that as a mathematical statement. They’d count the number of villages on the bus route.
A geographer will consider how many people get a lift to the bus stops from villages outside the area. Or the people who cycle to the bus stops from a hamlet — a settlement smaller than a village which is the case with a dispersed population in Norfolk.
I’d push the client’s request and make sure that the information they’re getting back was much more likely to be accurate.
THEN YOU WENT BACK TO UNIVERSITY
I was offered the chance to join a distance learning master’s in GIS at Southampton University (UK).
I chose the environment pathway from all the different ones because that was still an interest.
It covered various topics and began to understand more of the theory behind GIS. The jump for me was at the end of the master’s. The final year project, which tested all the GIS skills I ever had gained to that point, was to map tranquility in a way that shows whether it was possible to include it in environmental impact assessment.
That’s entirely theoretical.
The project took different models other people had developed over time to map tranquility and wilderness, to see whether we could replicate those models in varying complexity levels.
It was difficult.
I was fascinated and completely captivated by how we could model a subjective value across a landscape. I wanted to do more of that and do more landscape-scale modeling. I didn’t want to do GIS development anymore.
I did my master’s while working, which was beneficial because while other students were having to learn their GIS database technologies on Access, I had the advantage of a test SQL server environment. I could upscale a lot of projects. I had more resources to use and understand.
I did another year working on cables and wind farms at an offshore company. Three years after completing my master’s, the Ph.D. opportunity came up.
WHAT WERE THE KEY COMPONENTS OF YOUR PH.D.?
The Ph.D. was done at the University of East Anglia (UK).
In Norfolk, we have what we call chalk rivers. They are unique because they’re groundwater-fed and have a particular mineral content. They support a specific range of fish and ecology that you don’t get in other river systems.
Having had an interest in rivers, I wanted to understand more about catchment science.
I developed five case studies using different technologies with different volunteer groups and stakeholders working on chalk river catchments in Norfolk.
I didn’t have any glorious fieldwork trips to tropical countries like some of my friends studying volcanoes did. I got to go out on lots of walkover visits to meet stakeholders and design the technology I was going to use.
The first case study used augmented reality to communicate the location in the ecosystem services landscape (some refer to it as nature’s benefits). Things like soil, which produces food, cattle, which produce food, rivers that give us water, trees that produce oxygen. These are functional components and remote for many people to understand.
I turned these into little augmented reality points on a walk to see the landscape. People came and tested the app. They told me what they thought of it and whether it was useful.
It was fascinating to see how some people didn’t like it — they didn’t enjoy having to look at the screen and look around them simultaneously.
Some people turned it into a game to catch points, the same way that you’d catch Pokémon.
Then, looking at a whole catchment approach, I looked at how we could use open source data and GIS to model ecological networks across a catchment landscape and then attach ecosystem services to them.
Where are the areas of greatest value? What kind of values do we have? Not so much from an economic perspective, but from a stakeholder perspective. What do people really enjoy seeing? What do people need? Food? Water? Flood defenses?
That model used GIS, ArcGIS, and a digital hub where lots of stakeholders put in data. I used Community Biz, a plug-in for ArcGIS, used in America to calculate landscape change. It hadn’t been used in the UK much, and it was more of a planning tool.
I used it to show what changes stakeholders suggested in the workshops, “That’s a field. I’d like it to be a wood,” or “That’s a straight piece of river, but I’d like it to be meandering,” and how we could edit these in situ in GIS.
Rather than having to go back to the lab to create these 3D visualizations, we could render them in situ. They were dynamic. People could see the 3D model of their landscape the way they think it should look.
We took that away as searches and looked into why people made those decisions and knew what data we collected. That was fascinating, and I enjoyed working with the stakeholder groups.
For the last part of the Ph.D., I had planned to develop a game. I was interested in people making choices when there is no right or wrong answer about how some of these elements in the landscapes are managed. I wanted to understand more about why people made those decisions.
The game would let people choose what was most important to them.
What would their landscape look like if they only had 10 credits and could spend two credits on a wood or a meadow?
Unfortunately, my programming skills let me down. I just couldn’t do it. That was an entire Ph.D. in its own right.
Instead, at brief notice, I created a citizen science app, called River Eye, for collecting data about a river in Norfolk on the Norfolk and Suffolk border. It allowed people to collect information, with some training, on their mobile phones about the landscape. For example, things that were going wrong or things that we were doing right and feed it back to the organization. It was brilliant and something I want to do much more of because it’s useful.
DID YOU EVER USE ANY OF THIS IN YOUR CAREER?
There have been times when these experiences stood me in good stead.
At the end of a Ph.D. in the UK, you have a viva — an oral exam, several hours long, on what you’ve done.
My examiner thought mine was one of the more interesting Ph.Ds he’s come across because it was practical. Every element of that Ph.D. had gone outside academia and worked with practitioners on the ground. It was accessible.
Accessibility is what I’ve been able to use from my Ph.D. later on.
To work with a wide range of stakeholders, understand different perspectives, and bring together people with different opinions.
Since the Ph.D., I worked in a couple of Project Officer roles where I needed those skills to work. Not necessarily for GIS, but in a project sense, with that stakeholder group. That soft skill from the Ph.D. has been precious as I went forward.
I’m currently working with crowdsource data — a wide range of stakeholders. I suspect I landed that project because I had experience with citizen science type approaches during the Ph.D.
ARE YOU CONCERNED THAT YOU’LL LOSE YOUR TECHNICAL SKILLS, OR TECHNOLOGY WILL LEAVE YOU BEHIND?
I used GIS extensively during my Ph.D. Previous to that, I was developing and using it every single day. For about 18 months after the postdoc finished, I wasn’t using GIS every day; I didn’t even have GIS installed on my machine. I was doing other project-related activities.
Yet, it’s come back. It’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget. The technology may have changed, and there’s been a significant shift from ArcGIS Desktop to ArcGIS Online. But the things I want to do are the same. I can just go away and come back to do something new.
The geospatial community has excellent forums, such as Stack Exchange, the ESRI forums, or the FME Community forums. There’s always somebody you can go to and ask and see if there’s a better way of doing things. Even if you step aside from the technology world for a while, it is possible to go back in.
MOST PEOPLE FEEL THEY NEED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN THE TECH SIDE AND THE CUSTOMER-FACING SIDE
I like doing both.
I’ve been doing processing work recently — pure, unadulterated geek. There is no getting away from the fact that it is burying myself in models and processes. It’s good fun and hugely satisfying — when it works.
I also know that once the COVID and issues about site walkovers are over, I will be just as delighted to carry out a walkover survey on an NFM or Natural Flood Management project and take aerial photography. That will make me just as happy.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do both things.
WHAT PARTICULARLY IMPACTFUL STEPS HAVE YOU TAKEN FOR YOUR CAREER?
The jump out of the technical environment into an academic setting was one.
I found it difficult to get used to the academic writing environment and the research side of the Ph.D. That made me understand how we all communicate in different ways, and it strengthened my ability to connect distinct groups of stakeholders with varying levels of expert understanding,
WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW WHERE YOU CAN APPLY YOUR PH.D. EXPERIENCE?
I’m working on the Slow way community project, which requires me to have talks with the volunteers who worked on it, the project manager who designed and put together the whole concept, and the web developer and designer.
All these people are coming to the project differently, using their own technical languages and with varying geographical insights.
I am talking to and understanding all of them.
The Slow ways project is creating an entire network of walking routes between settlements. It ran throughout 2020, and volunteers digitized the routes. As a GIS expert, I help tidy up some route elements and put them into a GIS model, which applies to most circumstances.
I’m in the data management side of things and then overlay that with other datasets, such as CORINE Land Use data. This is GIS with stakeholder dialogues.
There’s also a project for a proposed onshore wind farm in Scotland. I’m undertaking the GIS-based calculations of the likelihood of peat landslides. They feed into a peat landslide hazard and risk assessment, which has to be done as part of Scotland’s environmental impact assessment process.
We also write peat management plans and use GIS and land surveys to show where there are potential opportunities for peat restoration. We can do that using any materials excavated during the construction. We’ve been exploring the use of 3D visualizations with the peat elements so clients, in turn, can communicate with a broader range of their stakeholders.
Lastly, I’m working on an offshore wind farm project. It’s data management in developing a method to evaluate the likelihood of cables being damaged when they’re laid on or buried in the seabed. These can be damaged by fishing activities and ships if they have to anchor in an emergency.
We’re evaluating the risk to the cables. To do that, we use a wide range of data, including ship activity geotechnical data. I work with our geotechnical engineer to test different burial methods’ effectiveness.
This is a project where we have a considerable amount of engineering data. We’ve got to move between the GIS and the engineering data. We have to be incredibly accurate and precise.
Typically, I work on two or three projects in different projections. They all have different data types.
The key element of being a geospatial person is to be well organized.
ARE THESE PROJECTS SCRIPTED, OR DO YOU ACT AS A STRATEGIC ADVISOR?
It depends on the project and the relationship with the client.
Some clients require a collaborative approach, and we explore fresh ways of doing things. For clients on their third or fourth iteration, we make sure we follow the exact method which has been done in the past.
WHAT’S THE ONE THING YOU’VE LEARNED FROM THESE DIVERSE PROJECTS?
It’s being open-minded about how we solve spatial problems that land on our desks and the technology in the software we use.
10 years ago, I would have always defaulted to Esri products. Now I use a more comprehensive range of GIS tools, such as ET GeoWizards, or QGIS. I’m no longer averse to trying out new ideas.
There are many ways to skin a cat when doing GIS analysis.
IT’S ALL ABOUT ADAPTATION
All the pieces of software I used for my Ph.D. were adapted.
For example, I took an augmented reality tool used in Amsterdam. It showed the distance between you and your hotel. You could put your phone in the air, look around and see how far away you were from your accommodation. It gave you walking directions.
I adapted this to show nature’s benefits in the landscape, how far away you were from them, and a link to further information.
The digital hub came from an idea used for climate change analysis in Canada. I took that and used it for community mapping of catchment science.
And my last Ph.D. project, River Eye, was developed on ESRI’s platform, which is designed to carry out citizen science projects around health.
These tools were adapted. There is so much development and innovation in geoscience. If we look and keep an open mind, we can see what others have done and build on that.
WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO GEOSPATIAL NEWBIES?
When I started out, there wasn’t a geoscience environment. It didn’t exist.
Thus, I’m always cautious of giving advice to people starting when there is this much innovation already.
I can say for sure that finding something you’re interested in is really important, alongside the GIS technology you use.
Come up with something, not necessarily a specialty, but something where you feel confident in your part of geoscience and then work outwards from there.
YOU MEAN A SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTISE?
But this advice is mostly for people who come to the field from the geography perspective. There are many elements to geospatial technology besides databases. Online web development, the cloud side of things, programming languages, client user interface, and the list goes on. If you find an area you’re confident with, then start there, and work outwards because it will eventually fit together.
WHAT ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT AT THE MOMENT FOR GIS?
Drones. The potential of overhead drones and UAVs for mapping and landscape change is fascinating.
Sarah did a fantastic job of sharing her insights around choosing between the technologist role, focusing on the technology side of things and the more client-facing, geographer role.
She’s done an outstanding job of straddling both worlds, hopping back and forth without fear of missing out or falling behind in terms of their technology.
It comes down to this: if you understand the problem, and you know it can be solved, it’s a question of filtering through the available tools and technologies to figure out which is the best one and apply that to the situation.