GeoPositions: GIS Analyst Focuses on Geospatial Education
Nicholas Weil has spent his entire life learning. In fact, he’s made it a goal of his to seek continual growth both personally and professionally.
“You have to push yourself to try new things and entertain new approaches,” he says. “Being a life-long learner is important in every discipline and, arguably, most facets of life.”
Weil is a GIS analyst at Remote Sensing & GIS (RS&GIS) at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. Founded in 1972 as the Remote Sensing Project, the company says that Michigan State was one of the first universities to experiment with the use of remote sensing technology for issues related to land use.
Luckily for him, the ever-changing geospatial industry provides ample opportunity for his life-long pursuit of knowledge. With 11 years of geospatial experience and five years at RS&GIS, Weil specializes in everything from GIS and remote sensing, to UAS and field data collection.
GeoDataPoint spoke with Weil to learn more about his work and what geospatial means to him.
Q. What do you do for a living?
A. I am a GIS analyst for RS&GIS at Michigan State University. We are a self-funded group that is housed within the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences in the College of Social Science. Our project portfolio spans the geospatial gamut from on-campus research, to local and state government projects to private industry contracts. My time is split between GIS and remote sensing projects and managing the Aerial Imagery Archive, which is home to several hundred-thousand photos covering Michigan from the 1930s to the present.
Q. What is your favorite tool to work with?
A. As a licensed UAS pilot, drone technology is one of my favorite tools that I get to work with. While I really enjoy getting out of the office to fly in various locations, I am most interested in the post-processing and analysis that occurs once I’m back at my desk. I hate to say it, but with a little training, anyone can fly most of these drones and capture great photos. The challenging part is appropriately analyzing the imagery to answer the question at hand. Much of our work focuses on agriculture and natural resource research, and we have several multi-spectral and thermal cameras to facilitate that. I really enjoy processing these photosets and developing indices, looking at change over time or performing point cloud analysis.
Q. What value do geospatial technologies bring to the work you do?
A. As a geospatial consultant, geospatial technologies are central to my job. It is important that I can manage a wide variety of these technologies to best meet our client’s needs. While I know how incredible geospatial technology is, much of our energy is devoted to sharing the benefits of this technology with people that are not familiar with it. We attend a variety of conferences across disciplines to give presentations and network with people so that we can espouse the value of utilizing geospatial tools. While many people have heard of GIS or remote sensing, explaining how the technology could directly solve a problem for them or develop a new efficiency is critical to their adoption of the technology.
Q. What is the toughest challenge you face?
A. One of the toughest challenges in my job is also one of its most rewarding aspects. The variety of jobs that we get to work on is absolutely astounding. While the breadth of our work keeps things interesting, it requires me to constantly keep abreast of new technology and changes across the spectrum of the geospatial world. While this can be quite the undertaking, I would not have it any other way. I relish the fact that I do not do the same thing every day and am often met with surprises.
For example, one day this past year, I was deep in the midst of a GIS analysis project when the campus police called with an emergency request for us to collect drone imagery of major flooding on campus. We dropped everything and mobilized to capture and analyze these time-sensitive data. Challenges like these have made me a better GIS analyst, while making my job more exciting.
Q. What is the biggest lesson you've learned?
A. At risk of sounding like a business cliché, the biggest lesson I have learned is to think outside the box. Sharing ideas with co-workers and colleagues is critical to staying at the cutting-edge and advancing your business. I have had instances where I put great time and energy into solving a problem, but feel as though I am fighting the data, software or even myself the entire time. Often, if I sit back and reassess the situation or bring in another set of eyes, I find there is a more logical approach. Sometimes, it is hard to accept this when you have put so much effort into your initial idea, but in the long run, you will have a better product.
Q. What advancements would you like to see made?
A. I am most excited to see the increased availability of 3D data and the development of better tools for its analysis. Increased funding from a variety of government sources has helped to spur the widespread collection of LiDAR and resulted in a variety of high-resolution elevation products. Software and hardware is also advancing to more easily manipulate and process these data to solve problems that could not be addressed before. While the argument can be made that traditional airborne LiDAR is now relatively commonplace, I am excited for smaller (and less expensive) instruments that can be mounted on a UAS. LiDAR-capable UAS coupled with technological developments into Geiger and Single-Photon LiDAR will give us access to more high-resolution 3D data than ever before.
Q. What are your keys to success?
A. The biggest key to success that I have noticed during my career is to always keep learning. Even though I work at a university, this is not something that happens automatically. … It can be so easy to fall into a routine and adopt the SALY approach (Same as Last Year), but that mindset inevitably leads to a loss in your bottom-line. While I am fortunate that my organization supports furthering employee education, it is not just trainings or classes that will solve all problems. I try to make searching out new information and ideas a priority in my personal and professional life, and have found it to be a valuable tool.
Q. What do you most enjoy about what you do?
A. Some of my favorite days on the job are when I get to problem-solve. Sometimes, this involves other colleagues in my office, and other times, it is entirely on my own. While it can oftentimes be daunting to be faced with a new geospatial problem, it is incredibly rewarding to solve it. One example from my work was developing a method to automatically identify and count individual Christmas trees from UAS imagery. After numerous brainstorming sessions in the office and a number of dead-end approaches, we emerged on the other side with a working geospatial model. Not only were we able to find each tree, we were also able to accurately measure its height and calculate a health score from paired multi-spectral data. Starting at point A with a question and working through various tools and methodologies to arrive at point D (or G or sometimes Z) with an answer is quite rewarding.