Women in GIS: Dr.Nancy von Meyer, Vice President of Fairview Industries

January 10, 2002

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What is your position in your company? For how long have you been at this company? Is this the company that brought you to GIS? And how did you arrive at this position?

My current position is vice president of Fairview Industries.I have been in this position since 1983.I came to GIS through the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin Madison.I was finishing my masters in mining engineering.One of my former teaching colleagues invited me to attend a few graduate seminars in civil engineering.Through those seminars I became interested in both the legal aspects of land surveying and GIS.I was originally interested in GIS applications for submitting and managing Office of Surface Mining permits.At that time a few map overlays would have gone a long way to improving the analysis and subsequent reclamation of the environmental impact of coalmines.I switched to civil engineering for my PhD and as part of my course work and several seminars, most notably the 1984 seminar on land records modernization, my interests moved to the application of technology and GIS to federal, state and local governments.

I had the advantage of meeting many pioneers in the field and was given the latitude to study a wide range of topics.As examples, I met Eunice Ayres, a Register of Deeds from Wake County North Carolina who pioneered the use of information technology with legal documents.Arden Sandsnes, a private surveyor in the Madison area, remains one of my touchstones providing advice and direction and a special insight to the implications of information technology.Since the early 80's I have been very fortunate to meet and work with the top notch people in GIS in government.The federal agencies I have worked with, most notably the BLM Cadastral Survey and more recent the BLM NILS program, continue to do ground breaking work.The counties I have worked with have also been exceptional.For example, I have had the pleasure and good fortune to work with Oakland County Michigan, which is a premier program with great people.

What is your education and training background?

University of Wisconsin, Madison, PhD, Civil and Environmental Engineering, 1983-1989 University of Wisconsin, Madison, Masters of Science, Mining Engineering, 1981-1982 University of Wisconsin, Platteville, B.S.Mining Engineering, 1972-1977

Would you recommend GIS to other women? How should they start?

Absolutely, for men and women.The people that make the GIS industry are among the most honest and straightforward of any industry.In the end it is always the people that make the difference.

In terms of where to start, it depends on where they are now, how much flexibility they have in their geographic location (i.e.the ability to move around), and what their expectations are for their careers.I favor government agencies, at any level.The agencies and counties I have worked with provide a strong land ethic and a caring work environment.There is great potential to see many applications, experience a variety of design situations, and explore new ground in these environments.This is also true for private firms as well, but I do not know as much about the starting employment in the private sector.

What is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?

On the work front, transferring knowledge and skills to my clients and the long-term friendships we have developed through our work together.The people I have had the good fortune to work with and to know makes all the difference for me.There are some incredibly bright and creative people with an excellent sense of humor in the GIS industry.

In terms of contributions, I think the work on the cadastral data content standard and the elements that have followed, such as the object parcel design and a database for land surveyors stand out at this point.

What does your typical day or week look like?

Communicating.I spend a lot of time with email, on the phone, visiting sites, and writing reports.

Researching.Working with creative and ground breaking people is fun but it takes a lot of energy and investigation to stay current.I spend a lot of time reading, trying new things with databases and applications, and thinking.Lots of times the answers come from other fields so contact with other sciences and people with other perspectives is important.

Why is GIS an exciting industry in which to participate?

It's the people and the problems we get solve.Leaving things better than we found them, helping people grow in their jobs and lives.If it is tied to location, count on GIS.And what isn't tied to location?

What is the most important "next thing" that will happen in GIS?

I think the web, distributed processing, integrating GIS into the workflow and the application of the object technology to GIS are exciting.(Is this an indication of a sheltered life or what?) I also think that consumer GIS is exciting.Making this complex technology as easy to use as a telephone would be nice.I would love to see small rural counties reap the advantages of GIS.

Before you came to GIS, what did you think your career would be in?

Mine reclamation/environmental engineering

I've noticed a dearth of women in the GIS profession and information technology in general can you comment?

Really? A dearth? I think it is a pretty balanced profession gender wise and actually age wise but I'll bet the racial balance is not what it should it be.In terms of balance and opportunity I think I am more concerned about getting good information technology and GIS programs into historically black colleges and into Native American programs.

How might we encourage more women in the industry? Should schools do a better job of recruiting women to the information technology industry?

Better yet, how do attract all creative visionary people to the industry.We need to continue to add good people to keep our industry special (and that's not southern for spatial).Our industry solves problems, helps people do their work more effectively, shares our successes and failures, and there is a lot of genuine philanthropic activity in our business.It is not ego driven, it is solution driven.

Does the fact that we do not see many women in management roles or as CEOs deter women from the spatial information technology industry? Do you think those entering the industry today are aware of the strides women such as yourself, Carol Bartz and Preetha Pulusani have already made to reach C-level management positions?

I don't know.Is that what attracts people to this industry? To be a CEO? I work with men and women every day who control their destiny and their daily work activities.Some are in charge of big programs, some run smaller departments and others participate on teams.The only trend I have noticed is that when an organization becomes dysfunctional, it begins through an atmosphere of disrespecting the people that work there and this disrespect soon spreads to customers and clients and contributors.A combative we-they environment then develops between groups in the organization and with outsiders.This creates a sense that the organization and its direction are out of control.Nothing discourages people, men and women, as much as a dysfunctional organization.I think we encourage good people to participate in and be a part of our industry by creating healthy organizations.That means using the technology to increase communication and trust and helping the people that drive and lead organizations be sound managers.

Is wireless location-based technology "fact or fantasy" or the next "killer app"?

I think it is fact.It may be the technology that forces us to scale down what we need to deliver to just the essential information.Those small screens don't leave room for much extraneous information.What do you need right now and how do we present it in a way that is concise, useable and understandable to people doing their job in a hurry.

Where do you see the greatest challenges for spatial data integration and the deployment throughout the enterprise of spatial solutions?

Standards.I think standards make it possible for us to share information across organizations.I think standard reduce the training and deployment costs.We need to make the standards real and easy to use.Fax machines talk to each other and we all use that communication technology effortlessly.Except for setting the time of day on the machine, pretty much anyone can intuitively share information using fax machines.I think we should be able to integrate spatial information that easily.And we are making strides in that direction, at least in the land records area.Both the Eastern and Western Cadastral Steering Committees are agreeing on common data definitions.The GeoCommunicator and the Geography Network are working towards consistent look and feel and data retrieval.But we need to keep working on it.Make it easy, make it applicable to daily work and keep your sense of humor.

Read more interviews from our Women in GIS series.


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