GeoInspirations: Luis Olivieri, helping youth build futures with GIS

By Joseph J. Kerski

Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations, a column dedicated to the men and women who are inspiring others through their work in geography. Our hope is that their stories will inspire you to push forward with innovation and determination in your own areas of the world. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, introduces us to Mr. Luis Olivieri.

I have been in touch with Luis Olivieri since his arrival as the GIS director at Hopeworks ‘N Camden in 2014.  As its name implies, Hopeworks is one of those organizations that you can feel good about, especially if you are in the fields of geography or GIS, because you are part of the technology and methods that are extensively used in their programs.  Hopeworks is, in my view, one of the best examples of an organization committed to improving the lives of young people and the communities in which they live.

Based in Camden, NJ, Hopeworks’ aim is to “create solutions for your business that provide opportunities and pathways to success for our youth.”  Through Hopeworks, young people are provided with resources, training, and support to help them realize their dreams and thrive in their community.  Hopeworks isn’t just something to smile about.  It takes work for it to succeed—commitment and long hours by the staff and years of dedication for the young people, ages 15-25, enrolled in its programs.  I have been not only impressed by their staff and young people, but inspired by their dedication, overcoming, in many cases, personal and financial challenges and the sometimes-harsh living conditions of their city.  Hopeworks goes beyond helping these young people achieve their career goals through job training, internships, and peer leadership roles—it seeks to meet their personal needs, too.  In 2011, they even opened a Community Responding in Belief (C.R.I.B.) residence for college students who have earned a job at, or who demonstrate responsibility in, the workforce while pursuing a degree at an accredited college or university.  The heart of the C.R.I.B. is community living, built-in accountability, encouragement, and safe, secure housing.

At its founding in 2000, Hopeworks’ directors decided to focus on three technologies that they believed would most positively benefit the community and provide workforce development for its youth: video, coding, and GIS.  While some of the tools they focus on have changed over the years, GIS remains fundamental to their mission, and those efforts are led by Mr. Luis Olivieri.  For his dedication to the community and to each young person he works with, I believe that Luis Olivieri merits inclusion as a GeoInspiration. 

I asked Luis if he could name the most important thing, whether a class, book, person, event, or something else, that convinced him to enter this field.  He replied, “Almost 30 years ago, as a graduate student at The Ohio State University, I was using the information from the USDA Soil Survey to create color maps for a class.  At the time, I was a known computer geek and while my classmates were using markers and color pencils, I was using a computer to generate my maps.  My advisor, Dr. Terry Logan, was looking over my shoulder and mentioned that he saw a presentation of someone using a technology called GIS to create maps.  That was way before Google and the web, so that afternoon, I was searching for information about GIS in the library. Since then, I have been hooked on GIS and don’t see myself doing anything different from what I currently do.”

Luis told me some very interesting and inspiring stories about growing up in Puerto Rico.  He said that “the most inspiring person in my career and in my life started working his magic way before I even thought about going to college. Growing up as a kid, I had my uncle, Pedro “Junior” Ciena, poking my curiosity in science and technology.  He was the one who showed me that learning could be fun.  As a kid, I remember sitting at his kitchen table talking about photography, the Pythagorean theorem, 3D technology, and even watching the first walk on the Moon with him. I learned how to be a better person, the importance of being professional and ethical, but at the same time, how to enjoy your job—all from him. Oddly enough, even though I knew my uncle was an engineer, we never spoke about what he did specifically, until after I began working with GIS. As it turns out, my uncle Junior was one of the first people to work with GIS in Puerto Rico. It’s a small world after all!”

Luis holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Puerto Rico, and has done post-graduate work as part of the Ph.D. program in natural resources using geospatial technologies at The Ohio State University.  He has held roles as water quality modeling coordinator for the State of Ohio Department of Natural Resources, senior GIS manager at Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey, and adjunct professor at Rowan University, Community College of Philadelphia, and Burlington County College.  For several years, he also owned and operated his own geospatial consulting service, GEODEC.  He served as researcher and professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, for five years in the College of Agricultural Science and five years in the College of Engineering, and was also the director for the Partnership for Spatial and Computational Research there. 

“Six years ago, I visited Hopeworks during an open house.  That day, I knew I wanted to work there.  I mentioned it to a friend in GIS, and a few years later, he called me to tell me that Hopeworks was looking for a GIS director,” Luis told me.

Luis has been active in many organizations in key roles.  These have included serving as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, on the Scientific Advisory Committee regarding Comprehensive Integrated Management Plan for the Mayagüez Bay Watershed for 11 years, on the Scientific Advisory Committee for the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Salinas, Puerto Rico for 12 years, and as director of the Senior Executive Board for the Partnership for Spatial and Computational Research at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, a NASA sponsored project to bring education and research experience at an undergraduate level.  He received a faculty excellence award from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.  He has presented at scientific and GIS conferences on topics ranging from water quality, remote sensing, land use mapping, soil chemistry, GIS in education, erosion, and other subjects. 

Given all of Luis’s accomplishments in higher education and in private industry, I asked him, “Of what project are you the proudest of being a part?”   He replied, “In my professional career, I have worked in different positions in GIS.  I have worked as a professor, consultant, and manager; I feel proud of every single project I have dealt with.  As I learned from my father, it doesn’t matter what you do, always do your best. I can say that my biggest accomplishment in my professional life has been working as the GIS director at Hopeworks ‘N Camden. Hopeworks is a nationally recognized not-for-profit organization that uses technology and entrepreneurship to partner with young men and women of Camden, New Jersey, as they identify and earn a sustainable future.  When people think about a nonprofit organization working with young people, they might not think about the level of professionalism we get from our interns.  They know we are working for a real client, generating and processing important data and they do their best.  Our clients include companies such as Merchantville-Pennsauken Water Commission and NJ American Water.”

“I always remember a remark from a former coworker who knew my background as a university professor, when he found out I was working for Hopeworks,” Luis went on to say. “He said, ‘So now you are working with kids!’  My answer was simple, ‘The best employee I have had in my life just turned 15 a couple of weeks ago,’ and I really meant it.  Working with this group of young people, I put together everything I’ve learned in my professional and personal life. I use my teaching skills, my experience as a consultant, but also I use my experiences as a father and as a Boy Scout leader.  It’s a huge challenge, but I can say that at the end of the day, I feel proud of being part of Hopeworks and my GIS team.”    

During 2016, the White House contacted Hopeworks because they wanted them to work on the National Day of Civic Hacking, specifically working with GIS in Camden on food accessibility in the city, detailed in an article here, along with a story map here, and a map in ArcGIS Online here.

I saw this first-hand when I visited Hopeworks. I talked with some of the youth who were working to map all of the city of Camden’s water infrastructure—water mains, valves, fire hydrants, and other features.   Walking around the city collecting data doesn’t just require knowledge of survey-grade GPS equipment and software such as Collector for ArcGIS and Trimble Pathfinder Office, it also requires diplomacy, tact, and good communication skills with local residents on and in front of whose property they are collecting data.  The students I know at Hopeworks are extremely professional and it is always clear when I talk with them that they had a deep sense of purpose—they know they are involved with projects that will have a long-term benefit to the city and to residents.  That they work with real clients in their community gives them an extra sense of accountability and desire to make their products and services of high quality.  These young people are also very pleasant to be around—in fact, both times I visited their offices, I didn’t want to leave! 

I first found out about Hopeworks when a few of the students presented to thousands of people in the plenary session at the Esri User Conference back in 2003. I remember distinctly how poised and confident they were, explaining how they produced a GIS database of all 33,000 parcels of land in the city of Camden.  They, like the students in Hopeworks today, had real clients, real objectives, and had developed real skills.

I asked Luis to give his advice to the geographic and geospatial community.  He had this to share: “The GIS community is a very special group; we are always willing to help each other.  One of our biggest challenges is that not everyone is aware of what GIS is or what it can do.  When I talk to someone about what I do, I always say ‘GIS is an amazing technology that is everywhere. It’s like air; we use it all the time, but we don’t think about it.’  From the analysis of finding the best location for a new coffee shop, or the logistics behind the ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right’ on a navigation system, to the beautiful maps we see in the news, GIS is everywhere.  We take it for granted without even thinking about it.”

“We need to create more awareness about what we do, about what GIS is and how it can help us to evaluate and assess spatial issues, and how it can be used in the decision-making process. I remember how much I hated taking geography when I was a child in elementary school; I had to memorize, memorize, and memorize. I never thought I would ever love geography as much as I do now.  We should start teaching the geographical connection to children from a young age. It will help them better understand the world around them and will create that needed awareness of geography and GIS,” Luis said.

I also asked Luis to give his advice to new geographers, surveyors, and GIS professionals. “During the last 30 years, I have seen a technology that has gone from something that very few people used to something huge, and the best part is that it’s still evolving. It is growing so fast that if you don’t keep up with what’s happening, you will be left behind.  Make sure you stay updated on everything that is changing through conferences, meetings, magazines, and on the internet.  GIS is so diverse and can be used in so many areas that even If you are not a student in a discipline directly related to geography or GIS, there is a good chance you can use GIS. I highly recommend that everyone at least one courses in GIS, as it could open new opportunities in your career,” he said.

I have enormous respect for Luis Olivieri.  He brings a wealth of geospatial knowledge and experience to his work.  He is on the cutting edge of GIS, thinking creatively about how to best engage the young people he is working with in the world of coding, application development, field work, cloud based services, spatial analysis with desktop and ArcGIS Online, and integrating their work into multimedia presentation tools.  I am fully confident that the additional skills they are gaining beyond GIS—skills in critical thinking, organization, goal-setting, communicating, and project management—will serve them well throughout their careers.  But even more important, in my view, is that Luis doesn’t feel that he gave up a higher paying academic or government career for his position at Hopeworks; quite the contrary, he truly feels that he has gained so much more from his involvement with Hopeworks that a price tag cannot be placed upon it.   And not only have the young people at Hopeworks or the alums of Hopeworks benefitted, but the entire geospatial community is healthier, happier, and wiser because of the work that Luis Olivieri is doing. 

Additional Resources

Hopeworks ‘N Camden:  http://hopeworks.org

Hopeworks ArcGIS online organization:  http://hopeworks.maps.arcgis.com/home/index.html

Food accessibility map in Camden produced by Hopeworks students: http://technical.ly/philly/2015/03/23/camden-food-desert-map-hopeworks-n-camden/

Article about Hopeworks using state-of-the-art sub-centimeter technology to collection data for New Jersey American Water:  http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150505006734/en/Camden-Youth-Hit-Streets-High-Tech-Equipment-Training

Hopeworks:  Youth Identity, Youth Organization, and Technology.  2006.  Chapter by Carol C. Thompson, Jeff Putthoff, and Ed Figueroa, in Digital Generations:  Children, Young People, and the New Media, edited by David Buckingham and Rebekah Willett, Routledge.   https://books.google.com/books?id=KRaOAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA313


Published Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Written by Joseph J. Kerski


Published in

Education

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