Skip to main content

Scholarship winner Lavanya Gopal applies GIS to environmental challenges

Four years ago, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University built a dashboard to track the spread of COVID-19. That dashboard, and ones like it built by governments, health agencies and other organizations, became essential sources of information during the pandemic – and inspired Lavanya Gopal to pursue a career in GIS.

Every year in the spring, I have the privilege of seeing a sampling of the work that students have done using Esri technology and submitted for the Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or the competition for Canada’s Esri Young Scholars Award (or both). The institutions that receive a scholarship have a broad range of programs and courses where ArcGIS is taught, so scholarship submissions demonstrate a range of skill levels, fields of study, and areas of interest. Students applying for the Esri Young Scholars Award tend to be in traditional GIS or geography programs – but their personal statements often reveal that they started off studying something else and discovered a passion for GIS after taking a course or seeing it in action.

Such was the case with Lavanya Gopal, a student in Vancouver Island University’s (VIU) Advanced Diploma in Geographic Information Systems Applications (ADGISA) program. She had used maps and spatial analysis throughout her undergraduate and master’s studies and as an engineer at different telecommunications companies, but it was seeing the importance of GIS during the pandemic and, in her words, “the critical need for accurate spatial data and responsible mapping practices” that inspired her to enroll in the ADGISA program.

In addition to being a candidate for the Esri Young Scholars Award, Lavanya is this year’s scholarship winner from VIU. I contacted Lavanya via email to find out how her telecommunications experience relates to GIS applications and how she hopes to use the skills she has developed.

Your bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and most of your work experience, is in telecommunications (telecom). Is there any overlap between that and GIS applications, and do you think that background has provided you with insights into geospatial technology?

Throughout my career, I’ve extensively used maps, 3D models, survey data, and user traffic; conducted overlay network coverage analysis; designed for mobility, enhanced coverage and so on. As a subject matter expert for radio network planning tools such as iBwave, Atoll, and Asset, and holding an iBwave Level 3 certification, I have conducted numerous complex spatial analyses to optimize network performance. Understanding the processes in diverse tools enabled me to build my expertise in spatial analysis. My hands-on experience in designing indoor wireless solutions for schools, hospitals, football stadiums, and office buildings has provided me invaluable insights into leveraging spatial data to address real-world challenges. Analyzing big data using extract, transform, load (ETL) tools such as Alteryx, conducting complex spatial analysis, evaluating coverage gaps, and creating compelling maps has equipped me to explore diverse applications of geospatial technology.

A valuable resource that has been consistent between telecom and GIS is Esri training videos. Previously, I referred to Telecom GIS in Five Minutes (TGi5) videos for insights into planning new site builds and now I have been using ArcGIS training materials to delve deeper into spatial analysis techniques.

Are there any skills you learned from telecom that you think can be applied to other GIS applications?

Analyzing coverage patterns, network performance, and simulating signal propagation translated well when spatial analysis involved examining geographic patterns such as average monthly temperature across B.C., deriving relationships between riparian depression zone and lake shore elevation, and identifying trends within datasets. Conducting iterative analysis such as performance optimization and working with big data such as user traffic are some of my skills that I applied when I was building the hydrological riparian zone model and working with large LiDAR files.

The hydrological riparian zone model you mentioned was part of a project you worked on for the B.C. government during your practicum. It seems to be very different from the type of work you did in the telecommunications industry.

There are some similarities between my previous experiences and the practicum, including complex spatial analyses, analyzing big data, deriving insights, and developing methodologies from previous research. I found that my skills in building modules and conducting analyses using ETL tools translated seamlessly into creating spatial analysis models using ModelBuilder. Visualizing a flowchart of the process and analyzing spatial data worked well for me during this practicum.

I did need to improve my knowledge about hydrological riparian zones, and to do so I delved into various research papers, making use of the research skills I cultivated during my master’s thesis project. This process helped me grasp the intricacies of the subject matter and adapt methodologies to suit our research objectives.

Why do you think is it important to study riparian zones?

Riparian zones have many ecological functions and their modifications impact various domains including aquatic ecosystems, bank stability, flood risk, drinking water quality etc. More research on these topics focusing on different impacts can provide valuable insights and encourage informed policy decisions. Employing a comprehensive approach integrating LiDAR, high-resolution DEM, satellite image classification, hydrological spatial analysis, soil characteristics, and detailed terrain analysis can be instrumental in characterizing an ecologically meaningful riparian zone. Effectively communicating the feasibility and benefits of such comprehensive processes is crucial for motivating ecosystem conservation efforts. Using maps, story maps, statistical analysis, and research papers to convey the findings can engage stakeholders and policymakers, fostering informed decision-making and promoting the sustainable management of riparian zones.

You said in your application for the Esri Young Scholars Award that you were inspired to pursue the ADGISA program at VIU by the increased reliance on GIS during the pandemic. Is there a specific field or industry where you are hoping to use GIS? 

During my previous roles, I had the opportunity to create dashboards, which sparked my interest in data visualization and its potential impact. Amidst the pandemic, I witnessed COVID-19 ArcGIS dashboards used in preparing health advisories and resource allocation strategies. Seeing the role of geospatial data visualization in conveying critical information in real-time and motivating the development of innovative solutions ignited my passion for leveraging geospatial technology to address pressing environmental challenges. This motivated me to pursue the ADGISA program at VIU and instilled in me a deep sense of purpose and a belief in my ability to make meaningful contributions to environmental conservation efforts. With a background in engineering and new skills acquired from the ADGISA program, I am determined to harness the potential of advanced spatial analysis tools to develop solutions that could encourage climate change mitigation strategies, drive positive environmental outcomes, and contribute to a sustainable future.

Having (almost) completed VIU’s ADGISA program, is there anything that you would now do differently for the research you were involved with during your graduate studies at the University of Colorado, or is there any additional mapping or spatial analysis that you’d like to do on indoor LTE coverage?

In comparison to 2014, there have been significant advancements in spatial data collection tools. My capstone project at University of Colorado involved collecting, evaluating, and enhancing indoor Public Safety LTE coverage. If I were to collect survey data today, I would opt for ArcGIS Field Maps/ArcGIS Survey123 due to the convenience in data collection and real-time visualization on the map interface. Attending Esri's AEC MOOC (Transform AEC Projects with GIS and BIM), I was impressed by the captivating 3D BIM models they showcased. Using 3D models in planning and designing indoor LTE coverage, analyzing coverage gaps, and identifying interference would provide an intuitive understanding of the radio wave propagation, enhance the accuracy of analysis, and offer a visually engaging way to communicate our findings to stakeholders. Embracing modern spatial data collection and analysis tools and harnessing the power of 3D visualization techniques opens exciting possibilities for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our projects in telecommunications and beyond.

Any final thoughts?

As I pursued the ADGISA program, I had the opportunity to explore diverse applications of GIS. From urban planning and environmental management to transportation and infrastructure development, the possibilities seem endless. The ability to analyze spatial data, visualize patterns, and derive meaningful insights opens new opportunities for problem-solving and innovation. I am hopeful that more individuals from diverse backgrounds will explore geospatial technology and apply their unique skills to pioneer innovative solutions.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins