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How scholarship winner Blair Scriven discovered a passion for GIScience

Some people know from an early age what they want to be when they grow up. Some people don’t. And some people think they know, and then realize part-way through their education that they really want to do something else. Blair Scriven falls into the third group: he started out in biology before eventually switching to geomatics and finally ending up as a GIScience student in the Department of Geomatics Engineering at the University of Calgary, where he won an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship.

The GIS profession is full of people who started out in a completely different field, stumbled across GIS through work, school, or in their personal life, and decided that is what they wanted to do for a living. I, myself, decided to do a master’s in geomatics engineering after completing an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, with a minor in classical studies, because geomatics sounded interesting. Many of the scholarship recipients and Esri Young Scholars I’ve written about in the past also haven’t followed a direct path to GIS: Jessica Linzel is a historian who used GIS for her master’s thesis; Patrick Droste heard about GIS while skiing; François Veillette worked in television and digital media before deciding to enroll in a GIS program; and Anne Provencher St-Pierre is a marine biologist who used GIS for her PhD research and was the only person in her research centre who used GIS daily.

Blair Scriven, this year’s scholarship recipient from the University of Calgary and a finalist in Esri Canada’s Esri Young Scholars (EYS) Award competition, proved that he also falls into this category when he confessed in the personal statement that he submitted for the EYS that “when [he] walked into [his] first GIS class, [he] could not even tell you what the acronym stood for.” I asked Blair via email to tell me what led him to study GIS, how a GIScientist fits in to a geomatics engineering department, and about his experiences with learning in general.

You have a BSc in Environmental Geomatics and Geosciences from the University of Guelph, but that’s not the program you started in. What was your major before you switched to geomatics? Was there any part of what you learned before switching that you could carry over into your geomatics courses? 

I had a couple of majors prior to geomatics. I have a diploma in biotechnology, which really hasn't done much for me recently -- other than help me explain how the different COVID-19 vaccines work to cautious friends and family. While in undergrad, I was initially a general biology major, then I switched to marine and freshwater biology, then to environmental biology, and then finally to geomatics at the beginning of my third year. Quite an erratic journey, I know. I guess I was just hesitant to give up biology. Not too much of what I learned prior to my switch to geomatics was carried over except for some of the ecology and statistic courses I took, especially the ecological maps I studied and the multiple linear regression models I created in R. 

While you were at the University of Guelph, you participated in an international field school in the Netherlands. Those types of courses were put on hold during the pandemic. Is there anything you learned from the field school that you don’t think could be learned in a virtual/online environment?  

For the field school, we traveled to the Netherlands to learn about Dutch History/Culture and the European Refugee Crisis of the Mid-2010’s. A lot of it was going to museums or tourist attractions and then writing reports about what you did that day. No geography or geomatics involved in that course, I’m afraid, although in retrospect I probably could have submitted a story map about Dutch refugee statistics or something for grades; the professor was easy going. Technically, most of what we learned could have been presented through virtual museum tours or Zoom calls with guest lecturers. But I know it would not have been as engaging or as memorable if I didn’t get to actually go inside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or get to experience the Humanity House in the Hague (which is unfortunately now permanently closed due to the pandemic, but did a lot of amazing work and is worth checking out if you’re interested in migration issues). I still have many vivid memories of that course, much more than I do for many of my lecture courses.

In your application for the EYS, you said one of the key lessons you learned about GIS is that there is always more to learn. You also said a lot of your learning was self-directed. How do you think this affected your studies (vs learning primarily through structured courses)?  

It was certainly nice not to have to get up for an 8:30 a.m. course when I did the self-directed learning. I also did not miss the stress and anxiety of tests; I’ve always performed better with projects rather than with tests. That being said, there were times that I assumed I was prepared and ready to take on a subject or learn an advanced skill, and then at some point I had to take a step back. For instance, when I was starting development on the prototype for my flood mapping web application, I thought I was ready to program interactive maps. However, after nearly two weeks of struggling, I realized that my JavaScript and HTML skills were not up to par, so I had to take two weeks to just get to where I needed to be. If I were in a structured online web mapping course, I think I would have had a better idea of where my programming skills needed to be, and I don’t think those two weeks of agony would have occurred.

Do you have any advice for students interested in the GIS field, or people in other fields considering a career change? Is there anything you wish you knew before you switched your major/career path to GIS?

Learn how to code! I know not every academic GIS program requires you to learn coding, but they really should. Python, JavaScript, HTML, R, and more will get you far. Esri Canada has some great resources, including the Learn to App page that really helped me get started with programming interactive web maps. Also, start building a portfolio! I recommend using GitHub Pages or ArcGIS Online to host your maps or dashboards. Do it now!

Your master’s program is in the geomatics engineering department at the University of Calgary. Why did you choose the program and were there any requirements for your thesis project that wouldn’t have been in place for a pure science master’s?  

This is not the first time someone has asked me why a science major was in an engineering department. I even asked myself this question, especially after contemplating the fact that I would be moving across the country to do this master’s program (I am from the Waterloo Region). What ultimately drew me to this program was the thesis project proposal itself. One of the reasons I got into geomatics was seeing how important mapping was for emergency management and disaster recovery, like with the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Thus, I was attracted to the idea of creating a flood mapping web application, especially since I still had not learned how to program a web map at that point and I wanted the challenge.  Luckily the thesis project only required some coding experience and knowledge of geoprocessing workflows, so a science major like myself was still appropriate for the job. No one in the geomatics engineering department seemed to mind that I was there, possibly because I was a geomatics science guy, so I wasn’t a complete outcast. One professor did make a comment about a course project I did, saying it was “very geography.” I took that as a compliment.

The tool you developed as part of your thesis project, CERC-HAND-D, has practical and immediate applications. Who do you envision using it, and how? Has there been any interest from governments or others?  

My supervisors, Dr. Heather McGrath from Natural Resources Canada and Dr. Emmanuel Stefanakis from the University of Calgary, and I developed the Canadian Estimator of Rating Curves using HAND & Discharge (CERC-HAND-D) tool for emergency flood management purposes, so technicians and specialists in the field of emergency management would get the most use out of our tool. CERC-HAND-D is beneficial because it allows users to create synthetic rating curves in river reaches that lack a gauging station, and in turn these synthetic rating curves, much like regular rating curves, can provide users with information on high-flow conditions and can convert streamflow data (m3/sec) into water level data (m). In particular, a technician could use a synthetic rating curve to convert streamflow forecasts into water level data, and then that water level data could be incorporated into a flood model. We are also in discussions with the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation (CCMEO), a division of Natural Resources Canada (who funded my project), about using CERC-HAND-D to support tasking satellites in the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) during floods.

The purpose and the steps involved in running the CERC-HAND-D tool are explained in a story map that Blair Scriven created.

As an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship recipient, you’ve been awarded software, books and training and as a finalist for Canada’s Esri Young Scholars Award, you won an Esri Press book. Is there any part that you are particularly looking forward to using?

I am most excited to keep on making web maps and applications using the ArcGIS Developer Program. I have so many ideas I want to explore through web mapping, and I can’t wait to see the full extent of what I can do! I also can’t wait to read GIS for Science, Volume 2. Apparently, Jared Diamond, one of my geography idols, wrote the foreword. Anything mixing GIScience with Jared Diamond is bound to be phenomenal!

Before the pandemic, you volunteered to run workshops with elementary school students. Did you use ArcGIS in these workshops? If not, how do you think you could have used ArcGIS to demonstrate the same concepts?  

When I was volunteering for Students on Sustainability (SoS) at the University of Calgary, I ran a couple of workshops using an educational tool called Alberta Tomorrow to simulate the process of sustainable planning in the province of Alberta. Students were challenged to balance land-use practices (agriculture, oil and gas, etc.) with maintaining ecological stability, and the tool included some reports students could fill out to submit to their teachers. While ArcGIS was not used in this case, the same concepts of sustainability and the industry/ecology balance can be taught using a story map or ArcGIS GeoPlanner. GeoPlanner would be a particularly good option, as that application can be used for landscape planning and designing impact-driven scenarios. It may be a little more dynamic than what is necessary for teaching sustainability concepts to elementary students, but any software with paint and draw tools will certainly keep the kids happy.

Looking forward, are there any additions or changes you’d like to see in the GIS community?

I would love to see more LGBTQ+ representation in the GIS community, including more panels at GIS conferences or community hubs that make maps to serve our community, like the LGBTQ Resources Map of Los Angeles or the LGBTQ Outdoor Groups Map. I know there will be a LGBTQIA+ special interest group meeting at the Esri User Conference, which is wonderful, but the more the merrier! I would especially love to see this sort of activity in Canada, since most LGBTQ+ GIS material is focused in the U.S. Feel free to contact me if you would be interested in creating a LGBTQ+ GIS group or something similar!

To celebrate Pride Month, I would love to highlight some amazing story maps that showcase the history of the LGBTQ+ community and highlight the current struggles our people are experiencing: The History of Pride, Identity, Immigration, and Institutional Maltreatment, LGBTQ+ Youth Inclusion in Cambridge Out-of-School Time Programs, LGBTQ+ Pride & Power, and many more!

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Developer and Analyst in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. Her responsibilities include developing resources for use by students and faculty at colleges and universities, focusing particularly on LiDAR, JavaScript and Android app development; collaborating on projects with researchers at select universities; and coordinating the Esri Canada scholarship programs. She has a PhD in Geomatics Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and also holds the Esri ArcGIS Desktop Associate Certification.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins