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What would you like to do?

This is my default career advice for people starting out in geo/GIS, especially remote sensing, adapted from a response to a letter in 2013.

I'm currently about to start a Geography degree at the University of [Redacted] at [Redacted] with a focus in GIS, and I've been finding that I have an interest in working with imagery. Obviously I should take Remote Sensing and other similar classes, but I'm the type of person who likes to self learn as well. So my question is this: What recommendations would you give to a student who is interested in working with imagery? Are there any self study paths that you could recommend?

I learned on my own and on the job, and there are a lot of important topics in GIS that I don’t know anything about, so I can’t give comprehensive advice. I haven’t arrived anywhere; I’m just ten minutes ahead in the convoy we’re both in. Take these recommendations critically.

Find interesting people. You’ll learn a lot more from a great professor (or mentor, or friend, or conference) outside your specialty than you will from someone boring who’s working on exactly what you’re interested in. Don’t get insular! When I look at the people whose work I most admire in every field, one constant is that they talk in depth with people outside their fields. My favorite artists have scientist friends and vice versa.

That’s the main thing. Staying broadly connected is the best advice I can give you. It will expose you to enough interesting ideas that you’ll be able to find the most productive paths for yourself. But I could go on:

Look for real problems. “Let’s make a map of the furthest point from a McDonalds in each state” may be a useful exercise, but it’s not a real problem. Accurately measuring how earthquakes propagate is a real problem. Making tools to support representation of indigenous land rights is a real problem. Finding long-term correlates of conflict is a real problem.

That doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time on scientific and humanitarian topics, especially as a student! But remember that your work is valuable. Wonderful people spent long days to teach you. You could be doing other things. So your attention and labor matters. Apply it in places that you care about. If you pine to do something relevant to climate change or income inequality, take a tiny step towards it today. Don’t be afraid to charge toward really prestigious, malaria-ending work if that’s what you want, but you can also have a fully and truly worthwhile career doing a mundane-sounding job at some tiny for-profit shop if you can do it sincerely.

If you need to take a course or a job that you don’t believe in, fine! Pay the bills. Read the assigned texts. Try to learn whatever you can even while you’re frustrated. There’s no shame in bussing tables or in typing parcel boundaries for the county GIS department. But don’t bring misery on yourself. Don’t say “Well, Yoyodyne makes kitten-seeking missile guidance computers and their contract doesn’t allow side projects, but I need something solid on my résumé, so I’ll just spend four years there while I get on my feet.” It’ll lead to selling out, burning out, and generally being no use to yourself or anyone else. Survive, but think big. The GIS industry is a moving target: don’t aim for a good job, aim to invent it.

Learn as much statistics as you reasonably can. Trust me. Half the time I work out a big technical problem it involves learning some stats, and then suddenly I see all these other places where that bit of knowledge applies. In fact, I’m making a note: I should learn more stats.

Read Edward Tufte’s books front to back several times, even the parts that don’t seem to have anything to do with maps.

Try to peek outside popular Western spatial ideas. For example, you’ve probably heard that there are cultures where direction is usually given in absolute terms, so instead of saying that the bathroom door is “to the left”, it might be “downhill” or “east”. Or maybe you’ve heard that Japanese addresses are block-oriented instead of street-oriented. So look it up! Read the studies! (Here’s one I enjoyed.) Even if everything you produce is strictly in conventional idioms, you want more mental tools. And you can take the cues that working in geo gives you to be a slightly more alert global citizen.

For inspiration about image processing techniques in GIS, look around: at astronomical imaging, computational photography, knitting, archival photo restoration. I’ve been tinkering with some imagery taken by a satellite sensor that works such that the bands are recorded at slightly different times, and having read about recovering early color images years ago turned out to be super valuable. I already know something about this problem that other people don’t.

Whenever you can, let the data lead. If you stumble on something interesting, maybe just a big cache of open imagery on some government FTP site, see what you can discover. Find its problems. Imagine something that might be possible with this dataset, assume it is possible, and do it. Being able to think about a piece of information from first principles – what’s its inherent dimensionality? what are its hard limits? what can it be connected to? – gives you an almost unfair advantage over people who are only trained to operate a given software suite.

Stick with open source tools as much as you can. You can look inside them to figure out how they work, though sometimes it’s hard. They will make your results more reproducible. When you understand them well, you can contribute to them for others’ benefit. And you get to share your work with a much larger community, which is good for you and good for the commons.

Companies that you would want to work for don’t hire based on how many checkboxes your CV meets. Teachers sometimes give that impression, but that’s just because it’s what they can measurably help you with. Better to ask someone with a job that you’d like to have in five years to look at your résumé and make three concrete suggestions. People who make hiring decisions are trying to solve problems, and you’re trying to convince them that you can help solve those problems. Sometimes that depends on your mastery of certain narrow skills, which you already know to put in your applications. But – at places where you want to work – it always depends on qualities like initiative, carefulness, ability to learn, curiosity, and delight in geo itself. If you can show those, you’ll do well.

When people say “do what you love” they don’t mean “goof off and trust the world to provide”; they mean “you’ll be working below your abilities if you don’t have intrinsic motivation, so find it”.

Teach. Any time anyone is paying attention to you, you’re teaching anyway, so it’s good to be deliberate about it. Teaching might mean keeping a notebook blog: “Today I tried to do X with method Y, but got result Z. Will report when I know why.” Teaching forces you to think carefully in certain ways. Teaching also helps you keep ethics in mind. Mapping is a special kind of power that most people cannot tell is being abused even when it is. Having to break it down for someone is a way to keep consequences in mind. People doing GIS are subject to the same forces and biases as everyone else in their societies. That means sexism, racism, economic exploitation – and so on and so on. Take these things seriously. Think about what you broadcast. Be better than neutral. Listen before you speak.

I think that’s enough general pontificating. Let me link to some stuff that might interest you:

  • I use EarthExplorer most days including weekends. Drop a pin and look at all the free data sources. See also Libra, Sentinel-1 Scihub, etc., and many commercial imagery providers release samples.

  • EOSDIS Worldview is a nice reminder that we live on a planet; see also MODIS Today, the Suomi–NPP VIIRS equivalent, and RAMMB’s Himawari-8 interface.

  • HOT OSM is an international treasure, and once you have the grounding, getting involved in its tracing will teach you a lot quickly.

  • King County (Seattle) is doing some quietly groundbreaking work on seeing geographical features as treatments in a standard epidemiology study, which gives them access to a set of statistical tools and approaches that are so far mostly used halfheartedly, unrigorously, or in silos within “normal” GIS.

  • James C. Scott works on interactions of geography and power: I recommend reading his books while in school, as an antidote to easy assumptions about geo’s inherent goodness, and from him you will find other thinkers.

  • Tele-present water is a rare example of geo art that moves me in a deeper way than “huh, cool!”

  • And Ingrid Burrington (@lifewinning on Twitter) is an artist whose geo work is inspired and challenges and deepens my perceptions. James Bridle (@jamesbridle) is another; one branch of his work that I particularly enjoyed was on submarine cables.

  • Peter Richardson’s “The Lay of the Land” is the only short prose I know that gets at the sense of place like it does.

This is just a sample of things that are a little off the mainstream of GIS but have given me some kind of sustenance. Some of them will probably leave you cold, but I hope they nudge you to find your own.

Probably a lot of what I’ve said here is not useful to you. I’ve been super lucky in many ways, and I could easily give advice that’s completely ineffective or insulting for someone in other circumstances. And of course any time someone gives advice for coping with life, it’s secretly mixed with stories about how they cope with themselves, so you have to do some untangling. Whatever I’ve said here that doesn’t make sense for you, throw it away.

@hpanno

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commented Jul 9, 2014

'When people say “do what you love” they don’t mean “goof off and trust the world to provide”; they mean “you’ll be working below your abilities whenever you don’t have intrinsic motivation, so find it”.'

This is awesome. Thanks for sharing.

@andreasviglakis

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commented Dec 7, 2014

re:eosdis: spent more time looking at the earth during winter today than i have my whole map obsessed life

@mikemorris

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commented Feb 23, 2015

Thanks for sharing this, there's a few gems in here that I've definitely learned the hard way.

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