GeoInspirations: Nathan Heazlewood - GIS is benefiting the planet, enriching career paths, and…is Cool!
Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Nathan Heazlewood, GIS professional from New Zealand.
A few years ago, while searching for material for the Spatial Reserves blog on issues surrounding geospatial technology, I kept discovering gems written by Nathan Heazlewood. After reading his insightful writings on things to be mindful of when assessing spatial data quality, how to prepare for geospatial careers, and other wonderful advice, I contacted Nathan and found him to be every bit as interesting and fun as his writings indicated. Through our conversations and subsequently meeting at one of the Esri User Conferences, it became apparent to me that Nathan has been a longstanding leader in geospatial technology and an advocate for the education community. It is my great pleasure to introduce Nathan to Directions Magazine readers and, through his story, inspire you to make a positive difference in our world.
“GIS is cool!” Nathan Heazlewood presenting at the New Zealand Esri User Conference in 2015.
Nathan explains his longstanding interest and journey in GIS: “I have been working in the GIS industry for 25 years. I was one of the first people in New Zealand to get a GIS diploma; in fact, there were no GIS qualifications being taught in New Zealand before I started studying! A millennial friend of mine recently half-jokingly commented to me that I ‘must have been one of the first pioneers of GIS in New Zealand,’ which made me feel much older than I am! However, there may be some truth in that statement.
“I started my career just as one of the early waves of geospatial technology was being widely adopted. My first job was with the government department responsible for surveying and mapping. It was interesting joining a team of older cartographers that had started out using the traditional methods of producing maps. I learned a lot about the underlying processes and code that modern GIS is built upon. I had to learn deep levels of command-lines in MS-DOS or UNIX; I remember writing hundreds of lines of Arc Macro Language to do things that nowadays take a few mouse clicks. I think that having that understanding of what is happening ‘under the hood’ in the software has been immensely useful in my career.
“My career since then has covered a wide variety of the different ‘sub-disciplines’ within the spatial industry. Some examples include: Working as a navigator flying with an aerial photography company, working to catalogue hydrographic surveys, geocoding our entire country’s address lists for our primary telecommunications provider, and managing the master street and address dataset for our National Fire and Ambulance Services. A particularly interesting phase of my career was leaving home to work for nearly a decade at the Ministry of Defence in the U.K. My primary role there was managing and enhancing systems that managed the defence estate (land, facilities, and establishments). That was fascinating due to the wide variety of assets that needed to be recorded and the differing requirements for those features; and interesting to work in an organisation that had nearly 300,000 personnel. I was fortunate in my career to have spent time working in many countries including South Africa, Singapore, Sweden, Portugal, and Germany; this gave me lots of ideas that I have utilised back in New Zealand, and I believe that I reciprocated with ideas from my country that were appreciated by international colleagues when I was working overseas.
“The variety of things that I have done in my career may be unusual, but it has been a great way to see all of the great things that GIS is used for. This variety continues my current role as a programme manager for Eagle Technology Group (New Zealand’s Official Esri Distributor). I work with different types of organisations implementing a wide variety of GIS solutions: From logistics for farm services suppliers to 3D projects for city government to working with indigenous Maori tribes recording their history. I think that I am fortunate that I have gotten my hands dirty working on such as large variety of GIS projects and worked with hundreds of different organisations in my career. My career has given me a helicopter view of what is going on in the whole industry, perhaps more than people that specialise in one particular role.”
I asked Nathan to name the most important book, person, event, or something else that convinced him to enter this field. He told me, “The reason that I entered into the field of GIS was following in the footsteps of my uncle, Geoff Howard. Geoff was an inspirational figure who had spent his career modernising cartography in New Zealand. He began his career as old-fashioned pen-and-paper cartographer and draftsperson, but he was visionary in seeing the potential of GIS. Geoff led the team that digitised New Zealand’s 1:250,000 topographic mapping in 1987 (at the time this was a world first). He then turned his attention to the 1:50,000 topographic data. That foundational data is now one of the cornerstones that underpins much of the modern GIS data in New Zealand today. My first job was as a student part-time digitising job assisting with those projects. It was extremely boring, but it was a great insight into the real basic building blocks of GIS data. Some of the data that I digitised (by hand on the big A0 digitising tables) is still being used in some form today (updated where necessary of course!). Geoff rose to the position of national chief topographer prior to passing away in 2011; he is sorely missed by family and colleagues, but he left a great legacy in terms of his contribution to establishing the GIS industry in New Zealand.”
I asked Nathan to reflect upon what has inspired him most in his career, to which he said, “Hmmm—that is a tricky question! I think that the thing that has inspired me most in my career is actually very simple and very broad: What inspires me is GEOGRAPHY! Like many people in the industry I seem to have a spatial mind. I seem to be better than many people at envisaging spatial situations and problems in my mind’s eye. By using tools like GIS, we in the industry are all doing really important work that benefits not only company profits and shareholders, but also contributes greatly to improving and protecting the environment, society, and the lives of people.
“There are some obvious examples of worthy causes where this is evident, such as using GIS to protect endangered species, disaster relief, or to actually measure scientifically what is really happening with the climate and sea level. I know that most of us working in geography and related fields care a great deal about safeguarding the environment and other worthy causes. I think that this is because [our] knowledge about geography leads us to having a greater understanding of how important these issues are. Another thing about GIS and geography that I find to be inspiring is that there are benefits in the work that we all do, even if it isn’t always immediately obvious. One recent example of this is where I worked for a logistics firm on improving their route planning. While that company is a private enterprise and their primary interest was in using less fuel and less wages to deliver their cargo, by being more efficient with fuel there is therefore less pollution (a win-win for business and the planet!). My current work is on improving traffic flows and making public transport more efficient and well utilised. There are countless other examples where the use of GIS can make more profitable, efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly decisions. I think that seeing these benefits from all sorts of work that is being done with GIS is really inspiring and this encourages me to try to get more people interested in understanding more about geography and GIS.”
Given his many accomplishments, what project is Nathan most proud of being involved with? “There are two initiatives that I would like to mention: Auckland Council’s Geospatial Future Mode of Operations Programme and the formation of the New Zealand Emerging Spatial Professionals Group. I went from technical GIS roles into project management. That combination of knowledge of the technology with the processes of project management is fairly rare but this combination is very useful. I have managed many projects and programmes, often with multi-million dollar budgets. The largest programme that I managed was GFMO. The purpose of that programme was to deal with a situation where eight local governments that had previously covered the region of Auckland in New Zealand were being merged into one new organisation (nicknamed the ‘Super-city’). GFMO was the programme that merged the GIS systems, data, processes, and teams from the eight legacy organisations into one new simplified and integrated formation. For two years, I worked with a very large and passionate team who could see the benefits that it would bring to the taxpayers. That programme was probably the largest single GIS initiative ever completed in New Zealand’s history, and the team won many awards for their efforts.
“Another initiative that I am proud of was my role as co-founder, along with graduate Josie Hawkey, of a group in New Zealand named the Emerging Spatial Professionals, or NZESP. This group comprises GIS students and recent GIS graduates. The group holds regular events where senior industry managers come to give presentations to groups of students and people in the first few years of their careers. The group has been spectacularly successful, with great support from GIS companies and senior industry figures, and a very large membership. The members have provided a lot of feedback indicating that they find these sessions to be of immense value.”
What does Nathan recommend that we work on as the geospatial community? “It is an exciting time to be part of the geospatial industry; some of the potential that I have envisaged for decades is now being activated. The industry has made great strides recently in areas that we have been discussing for a very long time: (1) Alignment with business requirements and greater understanding from non-spatial people about what the capabilities of GIS are; (2) Greater integration with ‘standard’ IT- this is evident with the interest that companies like Microsoft, Google, SAP, and HP have taken in GIS; (3) Faster processing from sensors including the advent of real-time data feeds.
“In line with this progress, I think that the geographic community needs to continue to align with businesses (big and small). I fully appreciate the importance of academic research, environmental analysis, and other social causes, but I think that some people in our industry don’t appreciate that much of the innovation that is generated in our industry comes from research and development funded by telecommunications, energy, utilities, and commerce. After all, these types of organisations have the biggest budgets to pay for advancing GIS. As I have mentioned, there are secondary benefits to academia, the environment, and social causes from this investment by commercial companies.
“One of the most important things for a new professional to understand is the breadth of things that GIS is used for. Everything from environmental impact assessments for new construction, to supporting disaster response efforts, to defence planning — and even mapping Mars. A lot of people don’t realise that the technology is even used for making 3D movies or video games.
“Associated with this idea, I think to some extent academic courses in GIS focus a little too much on the functions and calculations that are available using Desktop GIS. While those things are of course important, in the real world there are a lot of other uses of GIS that don’t revolve around a solitary installation of GIS Desktop software being used to edit a few shapefiles. Big organisations that use GIS tend to use desktop tools that are connected to massive corporate databases, with dozens or hundreds of users all accessing common datasets that are being used by dozens of different viewers or interfaces. Data is fed into these systems not only by a GIS operator performing some geometry edits, but also from data feeds from the internet, from sensors, or from mobile devices. Another critical thing to understand is integrations to other IT systems which may be providing details of personnel, finance, scheduling, or logistics. These items above are where GIS is moving into the field of Big Data and the internet of things.”
“I’m not convinced that many GIS graduates are being prepared sufficiently for these things, and that means they often have a big learning curve ahead of them after graduating. I advise students to take at least a few courses in computer science, particularly distributed computing or information systems. Consider learning about formal business analysis or project management. Focus on one particular industry that GIS is used in and become an expert about the use of GIS in that industry (for example, telecommunications, volcanology, hydrology, marketing, finance, and so on) — the list of choices goes on and on!
“The final piece of advice that I have for a new graduate is: Always remember, “GIS is Cool”. There are so many amazing things that can be done with GIS and it is a fun industry to be part of, so enjoy it! A lot of the work that we do is also really beneficial to the environment and society, and that is something that we can all be proud about.
“There is a famous proverb from the Maori indigenous people of New Zealand that I think is very relevant to everyone that works in geography and related fields: “Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua;” literally, “As a person disappears from sight, the land remains”. Paraphrased, what this means is that taking care of the land is vitally important, more important than an individual person, because the land is something that should be treasured and protected so that it can be handed down to our children and grandchildren. This saying is perhaps more relevant today than it has ever been.”
For more information, see Nathan’s writings and links about on-the-job training, networking, young professionals, university GIS curriculum, and more, here:
GFMO: The largest GIS project in New Zealand, that Nathan mentioned in this article:
Some of Nathan’s career advice: