Ken Buja is an IT specialist with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), which helps the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) meet its coastal stewardship and management responsibilities. NCCOS provides coastal managers with the scientific information necessary to decide how to best protect environmental resources and public health. The data also helps preserve habitats and improve societal interaction with coastal ecosystems.

Buja has been with the NOAA for more than 25 years, since receiving his bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He uses Javascript and the Esri APIs to create browser-based maps and ArcObjects for the analytical tools used in ArcMap. He works in NCCOS's Marine Spatial Ecology Division, mapping coastal, pelagic and benthic habitats, and examining spatial and temporal distributions of marine organisms and their relationship to their habitats.

“As GIS has become more user friendly and my colleagues have fully embraced it to do their analyses and make maps, I have transitioned from a cartographer, making maps with simple programming tools, to an application developer, creating analytical tools and Web mapping sites to make our geospatial data, imagery and video more easily accessible by the public,” Buja explains.

Buja is astounded by the rapid evolution of geospatial technology over his career. “When I first started at NOAA, I was using manual cartographic method to produce regional maps of fish and bird species, which took years to go from compiling the data to publishing the atlases,” he says. “Now, I am building applications that track the boats carrying our divers conducting fish censuses and monitoring coral health. This near real-time technology helps our dive coordinators respond to the fast-changing conditions that the teams face.”


Q. What do you do for a living?

A. As the GIS specialist for the biogeography branch of NCCOS, I provide guidance with geospatial analytical problems, build tools for ArcMap and create mapping websites.


Q. What is your favorite tool to work with?

A. Recently, I have started customizing tools for Esri's Web AppBuilder, taking specialized websites I have created and adapting the code to create configurable widgets. I am currently working on a widget that uses participatory GIS to prioritize areas for future mapping efforts. We have used this methodology in planning seafloor mapping missions in Long Island Sound, and the coastal and offshore waters of Washington state. Getting community consensus on not only where to map, but what type of mapping products are needed (DEM, backscatter, magnetometer, etc.), we can uphold NOAA's unofficial motto of "Map once, use many times." This widget can be used by anyone in their own app to do this same type of spatial prioritization. We're now using it in a new proposed marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan where only about 10 percent of it has been mapped since 1950 using modern technology.


Q. What is the toughest challenge you face?

A. Keeping up with the rapid change of technology is a big challenge. As I master one language or framework, another emerges to take its place and learning its quirks and strengths really keeps me on my toes. Keeping on top of the ever-growing list of new security protocols and restrictions just adds to that challenge.


Q. What is the biggest lesson you've learned?

A. Don't rest on your past accomplishments. This means not only striving to keep up with technology, but leaving behind something that you've created. When we first started mapping the seafloor, we were using a heads-up digitizer that I built first for ArcView with Avenue and then for ArcMap using ArcObjects to manually delineate aerial photography to create benthic maps of the shallow-water coral reefs. As we made the switch to using LiDAR and multi-beam echo sounders to map the seafloor, we automated the interpretation process to produce more detailed maps. With these better maps, we can improve our models for fish distributions.


Q. What advancements would you like to see made?

A. I look forward to advancements in the acquisition speed and automated interpretation of the multi-beam and sidescan sonar data we have been collecting for the past 15 years. For a recent survey in Lake Michigan, it took about two weeks to collect about 100 square kilometers of sidescan sonar data. One region popped out for its bright signal return, indicating it was probably a hard surface such as bedrock. It took additional ground-truthing using drop camera video to understand that these were actually huge mussel beds. We are constantly trying to improve the efficiency of processing the incoming data, conducting ground validation surveys and interpreting the results.


Q. What are your keys to success?

A. I work closely with a group of ecologists, marine biologists and oceanographers that have some brilliant concepts for analytical processes that I turn into tools that are both intuitive and efficient. A good example of this is a tool I developed to aid in sampling design, selecting a sample from a population or performing sampling design analysis. While I don't have a strong statistical background, my coauthor provided the formulas and theory that I could translate into code. This tool has been a great success in our field mission planning for coral reef ecosystem monitoring and continues to be one of our most popular products.