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Kendra Munn: Esri Young Scholar turned Urban Solutions Specialist

Esri Canada GIS Scholarship recipient. Esri Young Scholars Award winner. Completed Master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems and Science. And now, Urban Solutions Specialist at Esri Canada. For Kendra Munn, 2021 has been a very good year.

It was the colours on the poster that first caught my attention: teal and magenta on a dark background, used sparingly but to good effect to provide a frame for the text and for feature symbology in the map. This was the poster that Kendra Munn had submitted for consideration for the Esri Canada GIS Scholarship at Simon Fraser University and if the research behind it was as good as the poster, I knew that it could be a contender for the Esri Young Scholars Award (EYS) in Canada.

Map of Vancouver with insets showing the results of a residence suitability analysis for each unit in five sample buildings. Units on higher floors in buildings near the water have higher suitability levels than units on lower floors near the centre of the city.

Kendra Munn’s poster submission for the Esri Canada scholarship and Esri Young Scholars Award competition featured a 3D view of Vancouver with teal shades representing high suitability for residence and magenta shades representing low suitability for residence.

This year’s EYS competition did not receive a record number of applications but it was notable in other ways: for the first time, a student in a college program was ranked in the top three; students in history and archaeology were among the finalists; and, independent of her EYS application, Kendra was also applying for the new Urban Solutions Specialist position.

Thoughts on the Esri User Conference

Back in July, before Kendra joined the Education and Research group, I asked her a few questions about her experiences as an Esri Young Scholar at the virtual Esri User Conference.

What did you think of the format for the UC, with “live” technical sessions and partner presentations and pre-recorded, on-demand user presentations?

I thought the virtual User Conference was well formatted - having the user presentations pre-recorded allowed for a fuller and more flexible personalized schedule, as they could be viewed after the conclusion of the live sessions, rather than competing with them. I’m also glad the other presentations were kept ‘live’ initially, as it offers all the excitement and anticipation of a typical in-person conference in terms of looking forward to certain sessions, as well as allowing the attendees to ask the experts questions on the material.

Which sessions did you attend – and are you planning to (re)watch any recordings?

I attended sessions on ArcGIS Indoors: An Introduction, 3D Across ArcGIS, ArcGIS API for Python: An Introduction, ArcGIS: Designing Thematic Maps, and Enabling Better Workflows with BIM & GIS. Unfortunately, the week of the conference was an extremely busy one for me, so I wasn’t able to view nearly as many presentations as I would have liked. The list of recorded sessions I’m hoping to watch following my schooling is too long to write here, but among some of the ones I’d like to view are ArcGIS Pro: Introduction to Using CAD Data, ArcGIS Velocity: An Introduction, ArcGIS: Introduction to Deep Learning, and ArcGIS 3D Analysis: Lidar Classification and Feature Extraction. And of course, Mappy Hour!

Were you able to attend any of the Special Interest Group (SIG) meetings on Thursday?

I attended the Facilities & Indoor SIG, which covered several examples of different organizations’ use of Esri Indoors technology to facilitate wayfinding, space use optimization, and other facilities management related solutions. I was drawn to this one as I’ve spent some time with 3D modeling of building exteriors but have not yet spent much time working with interior building data. The applications were interesting and varied, ranging from airport wayfinding and movement flow analysis, to office desk booking systems during the COVID-19 pandemic and assessment of museum exhibition issues. The experience definitely has me looking forward to trying out ArcGIS Indoors when I get a chance!

I would love to have attended more SIGs – Sustainable Development Goals, Disaster and Emergency Management, and Corporate Security and Safety really jumped out at me – but again, I didn’t really have the time to attend. I’ll be happy once I’m finished school to have the opportunity to go back and watch the sessions I missed!

I sat in as a silent observer on the zoom meeting for the international Young Scholars with Jack Dangermond. One of the things that has maybe stuck with me the most is that Jack said he tries to be more interested than interesting – to ask people questions and be interested in what they are doing rather than make himself sound interesting. Are there any things from that meeting that have stuck with you, or made you think about things differently?

That insight was also something that struck me in particular – that Jack said he tried to be more interested than interesting. Apart from the positive impact I believe such advice has on fostering genuine connection and engagement in a social or networking setting, which is also important, I feel it really resonated with me and my own approach that I try to take towards learning. I think it’s important to always be in a constant state of asking questions, to always be willing and eager to learn more than you already know. Especially in a field like GIS, where the technology is constantly being advanced and the number of problems that can and should be addressed is always growing. And I think if you’re lucky enough to be pursuing something you’re passionate about, asking questions and learning comes more easily.

The plenaries tend to introduce a lot of new features, or ones under development. Are there any that you are eager to try – or think could be useful in your new job?

There were so many new and interesting features covered in first day’s plenary, it is kind of hard to know where to start! There are certainly several that I think would be good to investigate to see how they might potentially benefit my new job. Two that caught my attention were the upcoming ArcGIS GeoBIM web-based application and the ArcGIS for AutoCAD plug-in, both of which could offer opportunities to enhance 3D city models by integrating GIS with CAD/BIM data and documentation. I also look forward to one day being able to test out SURE for ArcGIS to create photorealistic, detailed meshes of urban areas relatively quickly using imagery and 3D data.

At a more detailed level, I think it would also be neat to explore ArcGIS Pro’s floor-aware mapping capabilities to be able to visualize and filter various indoor floor plan features. Other software and features that I’m excited to try include ArcGIS Insights, to see what exploratory data analysis and visualization types the software has to offer, as well as playing with voxels in ArcGIS Pro to see what phenomena can be represented and analyzed using 3D volumetric data. I would also really like to try out ArcGIS Pro’s Deep Learning tools for imagery classification and object detection, as my first real foray into that new and exciting world of GeoAI.

Thoughts on joining the Education and Research Group

After Kendra started her new position on September 2, I was curious to learn more about her, what her initial thoughts were about working at Esri Canada, and if she had had time to watch any more sessions from the UC.

You said you weren’t able to attend many sessions during the UC because you were busy with school. Did you have any time between finishing your degree and starting your new job to watch any of the recorded sessions?

No, I must admit, unfortunately not! Even after my degree I’ve been working on finalizing papers, so I didn’t get a chance.

You’ve only been with the company for a few weeks, but what are your impressions so far? Are there any differences between studying from home and working from home?

It’s been great so far! I love that I’m basically getting paid to do a job that encompasses all of the very best aspects of school (which, as a former professional student, I’m extremely fond of). There’s real variety in the projects I’ve been assigned, and they all involve some aspect of research or problem-solving, with some specifically geared towards learning new skills and software, which is such a treat! There are times when you can go into a new job and the work quickly becomes repetitive, and unless you actively pursue a new role you don’t learn anything beyond that. But here, constantly learning new things is encouraged, so each task accomplished feels much more rewarding. I also appreciate how the company has implemented initiatives to foster social connections between employees during the pandemic, which can be quite isolating.

Both studying and working remotely have had the major perk of not having to spend two hours a day commuting. However, I will say that with school I felt like I spent the majority of each day working on my thesis, because you feel like there’s always something more you can add to it. Whereas at work now, I have more clearly defined hours and tasks, so it’s nice to be able to put it aside at the end of the day and actually allow myself some free time!

Your thesis research focused on three-dimensional suitability analysis for urban environments. Do you think you’ll be able to apply that directly to your work? Or apply the story map skills you’ve developed?

Definitely! I’m already working on a project where my thesis research has proven quite useful, in that it requires a form of multicriteria suitability analysis and three-dimensional representation of the urban setting. From a broader perspective, that familiarity with ArcGIS CityEngine software and its CGA language is very relevant to my current position, as a large focus of my work will be in urban scenario modeling and analysis, so it’s good to have that foundation. In terms of skills developed for the award project, I think it was also highly beneficial to learn the basics of Map Viewer and Scene Viewer, as ArcGIS Online’s capabilities have grown considerably, and it is a great way to share and review geospatial data with clients. It’s hard to say at this point if I’ll be creating many story maps, but I’d be open to it – they’re fun to make!

In your application for the EYS award, you describe the “horror” of discovering you liked GIS while taking an elective, after having finally settled on environmental science as your major. Do you wish you had learned about GIS earlier in your undergraduate degree?

Without a doubt. I was on my second-to-last term, finally about to finish, when I took my first introductory GIS course. I enjoyed it so much, I stayed on another two years just to complete a Spatial Information Systems (SIS) certificate (I never had another course with the same instructor again, but apparently he went on to author one of the Esri press eBooks I received through the Esri Canada GIS Scholarship). Had I known about the field earlier, I would have registered as a GIS major, as my university offers a full-fledged bachelor’s program (B.Sc. in Geographic Information Science) that is essentially equal parts GIS and computing science. That’s the other thing – it would have been so advantageous to have learned more about programming, which of course is highly useful in this field by allowing you to automate tasks and develop tools or even new applications.

In short, if I could do it all over again, I would pursue a GIS degree in my undergrad instead. I can’t say I fully regret the path I ended up taking, though – after all, if I’d taken a more direct route, I may not have ended up winning the Young Scholar Award or landing a job with Esri Canada.

Do you have any advice to students thinking of applying for the EYS next year, or just thinking about a career in GIS?

For those thinking of applying for the Young Scholar Award: just go for it. I thought there was a good chance I might not win, because while my project was interesting in its own way, it wasn’t tackling a large issue, like climate change. But there was still a novel aspect to the research, and the methodology was sound, which is why I believe it ended up being a contender. Furthermore, like anything in life, it pays to be well rounded. While you obviously want to do a solid job on the GIS project and analysis itself, try to put an equally strong effort into the other aspects of the submission (i.e., story map design, poster layout, personal statement), because presentation counts. For instance, for my entry, in addition to familiarizing myself with the different functions of ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS StoryMaps, I took some time to learn new photoshop and video editing software, just to find a few ways to try and give it a little more edge.

For those who are considering a career in GIS, I cannot stress enough the importance of learning as much as you can, even beyond the classroom. The ArcGIS world is so much bigger than what you will likely be introduced to initially, and it’s a good idea to learn multiple different software applications beyond Pro or Desktop to set yourself apart. There are so many free resources and tutorials available from Esri for students who are willing to learn, that many may not be aware of. It would also be useful to get some commonly used programming languages like Python or JavaScript under your belt, which will greatly expand what you can do with GIS software. As with most careers, networking always helps, so try to attend or present at as many user conferences and similar workshops if you can. If your school is part of the Esri Canada Centres of Excellence, that’s also a great way to become more involved, and test your skills with events like the App Challenge. Overall though, the main thing is to be open to new skills and experiences, and of course, enjoy it!

Want to hear more about Kendra’s work? Join us for a virtual seminar on GIS Day, Wednesday, November 17, where Kendra will be giving a talk about urban 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