Geo Positions: Transformative Years for Government GIS
David J. Blauvelt is an analytic methodologist for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) located in Springfield, Va. He has worked for NGA for a total of 10 years — seven years as contractor and three as government employee.
Blauvelt’s geographic information systems (GIS) experience stretches back more than two decades. He holds a bachelor’s degree in geology from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a master’s in geology from the University of Buffalo, a Ph.D. in physical geography from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne and a GIS certificate from San Diego State University. “I spent most of my academic time examining volcanoes and glaciers, and with a background in commercial GIS that typically lies in the environmental or facilities sectors, I never expected to wind up at NGA,” Blauvelt says.
An important challenge he faces is defining what GIS is. He points out that to different people it can mean different things. As the number of dimensions increases, like time and analytics, he says the perception of what people want and expect expands. To many people he encounters, GIS is perceived as just being layers of data. Blauvelt sees it as far more than that; it includes the relationship of objects to each other and surrounding geography over time.
As a GIS analyst, he says today is where those in his role have always wanted to be. He appreciates the enormous amounts of data, and the software and tools able to handle its speed and volume. “On the other hand, much of the new types of data that has become available isn't structured in the way GIS folks would like. The trick is how to extract meaningful information out of that mountain of data in a timely fashion,” Blauvelt says.
Q. What do you do for a living?
A. My current role is an analytic methodologist for NGA, with an extensive GIS background in the commercial, environmental and academic sectors.
Q. What is your favorite tool to work with?
A. I am using Insights for ArcGIS to explore and discover spatial relationships in my data, and using Plotly for collaborative efforts with data visualization experts.
Q. What is the toughest challenge you face?
A. Staying abreast of changing technologies and the tremendous influx of data coming at us. It's an exciting time, but very challenging using government IT infrastructure that isn't as versatile as the commercial sector that seems to transform on an almost daily basis.
Q. What is the biggest lesson you've learned?
A. Everyone's learning. We hold informal sessions, called Dipping into Data Science, to not only demonstrate new tools and technologies and training opportunities, but we also provide managers and analysts with definitions of new terms and provide a “safe space” for people to ask questions. It's vitally important that people are provided with the tools and a network of people to succeed, whether they are decision makers purchasing new software or managers who are going to have a data scientist assigned to them, to understand, manage and scope expectations.
Q. What advancements would you like to see made?
A. I'm looking forward to seeing how the federal government can jump start its technology and leverage micro-services so we can build, deploy and use new tools more rapidly. The next five years will be very transformative.
Q. What are your keys to success?
A. I try to understand what a customer with no background in GIS or data science may need and try to make the time to explain in terms that relate to them what we're trying to achieve with our methodologies. If they can see that the effort will save them time and increase production, they're usually willing to participate. Without their participation, the project will not persist in the long term.