GeoInspirations: Lauri Sohl - Enabling a Smart City, and Giving Back to the Community

February 6, 2019
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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Lauri Sohl, GIS manager at the City of Sioux Falls, S.D. and adjunct instructor at South Dakota State University.

I have had the pleasure of working with Lauri in planning an upcoming South Dakota statewide GIS conference. I also have great respect for what she has accomplished in her leadership position at Sioux Falls. I find it amazing that somehow, in the midst of her many responsibilities there, she makes time to teach at South Dakota State University, and so exemplifies the idea of giving back to the education community. I love the career advice she shares here. It is my pleasure to introduce Lauri to Directions Magazine readers.

 I asked Lauri to describe her current position and her background, to which she replied, “My life, both personal and professional, is driven by my love of geography and learning. I have been married for 25 years to my husband, Terry. Our son, Alexander, is in his second year of high school. We love travelling together and going on vacations, especially enjoying the outdoors in our amazing national parks and monuments. I love dogs. My dogs, the neighbors’ dogs, dogs I see on the street. Currently, we have two wonderful rescue dogs, brothers, named Oscar and Felix. I am the GIS manager with the City of Sioux Falls, and I just celebrated my 20-year anniversary with the city. In addition, I am an adjunct instructor with the geography program at South Dakota State University. I teach Introduction to GIS, GIS Applications, and GIS Data Creation and Integration.”

Lauri went on to say, “I am the luckiest woman on the face of the Earth. As time goes by, I’m constantly reminded of the wonderful people that I’ve gathered along the way. The author of this article included.” [Author’s note: Oh, thanks Lauri! Very kind of you to say!]

I asked Lauri what convinced her to enter the fields she pursued. She replied, “I feel strongly that having a geography background gives you the ideal background needed to excel in the GIS field. GIS is software, and there are many with various backgrounds who are proficient. But to me, there’s more to its power than proficiency…

“I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in geography from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. I made my way to geography by way of political science and climatology. Like many geographers, I took a geography elective and was hooked. I then took a course called Industrial Location, which focused on community development. I still have the textbook for that course. I knew then that this was a turning point for me; I knew that I wanted then to major in geography.

“I had two key influences at UNL: Dr. Robert Stoddard and Dr. Douglas Amedeo. Dr. Stoddard was my guiding light for all things ‘geography of’ ...especially geography of Asia. But what he probably didn’t even realize was how he influenced my love of geography and statistics, when I took his Quantitative Methods course. I come from a humble background, and had to work many hours in order to support myself when I was in college. I remember being so tired at the beginning of a 3-hour lecture. I will never forget when Dr. Stoddard took me aside, since I was doing well in the Quantitative Methods course, and he motivated me, expressed that he was proud of me, and encouraged me to keep going. I get emotional when I think of that conversation, even now. Even just typing this, I’m saddened by what a loss to the world it is now that he’s no longer with us. He is the reason I kept going.” [Author’s Note: As we’ve seen in other GeoInspirations columns, the power of a good mentor and teacher cannot be overstated!]

“I took Dr. Amedeo’s courses on spatial theory, and this has influenced me throughout my entire career. Years later, when I pursued my master’s degree, and was working on my thesis, I reached back to my notes on spatial theory and took many of those concepts and theories, and applied them to my hypothesis on the diffusion of organic agriculture consumption.

“I would be remiss in not mentioning how I got started in GIS — kind of. Remembering this was the late 1980s/early 1990s, I had one class in college that I believe was called Digital Cartography. The software we used was more of a paint package. GIS as a career word was not in my vernacular just yet. My thought was more general: graduate with a degree in geography, apply for geography-related jobs with the federal government, Defense Mapping Agency, even the National Park Service.”

I asked Lauri to think about a person, class, or topic that most inspired her during her career. “In the early 1990s, after graduating from UNL, I moved to the Washington, D.C. area with my new husband, with no internships or experience to speak of, just a geography degree and lots of hope and a typewriter. But luck was on my side. I sent my resume (typed on said typewriter) to a company that was then called Greenhorne & O’Mara. I had heard they needed digitizing technicians to work on a project for the EPA. In a matter of days, I interviewed and was offered the job. And this set the stage for everything that was to follow. GIS was where I wanted to be as a geographer.

“This is where I learned, in the real world, how to register paper maps; scale, large and small; digitizing; QA/QC; how plotters work. And like all geographers and GIS professionals, how to become so engrossed in a project that you are working on that you’ve become a microexpert on a new subject; in this case, habitats of rare and endangered species on the United States coastline. But, life in Washington, D.C. was not the lifestyle that my husband and I wanted to continue. We were fortunate; my husband was offered a job at the USGS EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“It was a bit harder for me to find my career footing. For a time, I worked remotely for Greenhorne & O’Mara. A few years for The Nature Conservancy. I jumped at the chance to also get a job at EROS, and stayed a few years, but the day-to-day left me uninspired. But then, the City of Sioux Falls had an opening for a GIS technician. The position was not a promotion, but the fit felt right. I just celebrated my 20-year anniversary with the City of Sioux Falls. I have loved my job since the first day.

“The early days: Using AML to project the city’s coverages from State Plane to UTM; Command Line ArcInfo (Unix and Windows); processing imagery acquisitions using GRID and ERDAS Imagine; ArcView. Flash forward to ArcIMS – one of the first web mapping software. I wrote a grant to ESRI that was awarded and I’ll never forget sitting in front of my newly ‘won’ server and web mapping software, and figuring out how to make it all work.

“Figuring out how to make it all work is a theme throughout my career. In geography and GIS, you never know it all. Our profession is a humble one. Just when we think we’ve hit the pinnacle — eureka! — a request comes in, a question arises, a challenge is presented, another question or challenge requires that we use the scientific method and use our core geography skills as problem solvers.

“I had no idea then that ArcIMS was just the beginning; that web data sharing would be a core tenant of the rest of my career. There were, and are, many leaps and bounds to today, where I now manage Open Data for our organization, I continue to create web maps and applications, and my focus is on inspiring and mentoring others, to help them achieve their personal and professional goals.

“Early on at the City of Sioux Falls, I decided to go back to school to earn my M.S. in Geography. Again, this was challenging; I was working full time and going to school. I had many wonderful professors, but I had, and still have, a strong connection with Dr. Darrell Napton. Dr. Napton taught me how to question, and critically think. This has affected me in numerous profound ways. I started to see the world differently, see my job differently, and how I see my place in the world and what I can do to effect change. He was my thesis advisor. He enabled and encouraged me throughout the thesis process. One of my proudest moments was when I graduated. Dr. Napton has been in my life ever since, and in addition to being my mentor, I consider him a friend.”

I asked Lauri to name the project or initiative that she is proudest of being part. She said, “Around 2010, Dr. George White from South Dakota State University, my alma mater, reached out and asked if I would consider teaching GIS courses for SDSU, online. I was so moved by this, and very intrigued. (I suspect Dr. Napton put my hat in the ring.) I would be able to give back, to share my love of geography and GIS with students. But how would I figure how to do this online? Learning and education came to my rescue. SDSU has an Online Instructor Master Certification Program. Thanks to Dr. John Howard, I learned methods and pedagogies of teaching online. Dr. Howard stressed the importance of communication and collaboration, both in his teaching methods and when working with students. Instructional design and IT also facilitated with setting up virtual labs, where I would install the GIS software and data. Before I received my certification, I had a project where I mentored another online instructor, and helped them improve their course...again, sharing, learning, and getting more than I give. And off I went!

“I have been teaching online for SDSU since then. I have taught a few different courses, but currently teach a rotation of Introduction to GIS, GIS Applications, and GIS Data Creation/Integration. I rarely have the opportunity to meet my students in person, but, as the weeks go by each semester, I get to know each student in unique ways. Some students do not reach out, even when I reach out to them. Some students reach out the first week. They need a call from me, and I’m happy to oblige, to assure them, they’ve got this, they can do this. I tell them that GIS has hurdles. At first, it’s the setting up. They follow my request to join the SDSU ArcGIS Online organization, set up access to the virtual lab, or install the software on their PCs. Then the first weeks, the newness of the software, the deepening understanding of the science, and the students — some more quickly, some more slowly — start to get it, and by the end, have mastered what will set them up for their next steps: another GIS course, a master’s degree, a career. A few years ago, I had a student in my introductory course who struggled. But he continued to reach out; I continued to respond. We communicated via email, on the phone, and screen sharing sessions. He improved every week, and by the end of the semester, his mastery was evident. He went on to graduate school, earning his M.S. in Geography. He would not even know how I have followed his progress and cheered him on, virtually. I do this with so many students, and am here for all of my students, during, and forever after, they have taken my courses.”

What is the most important thing that Lauri thinks we need to work on as the geospatial community? “We are so very lucky to have a job that we love. Everyone should ask themselves: how can we help others? For years, I have hired or helped hire students from SDSU, to give them a summer (or two, or three) of GIS hands-on experience. This benefits their future employer, who, I’m happy to say, might be with me!

“Don’t be idle. What professional organization do you want to join? For me, it’s the AAG and URISA. I have my GISP. I encourage others to get their GISP. While software certification is useful, for me, when I am hiring, I want to see professional involvement. Software can always be learned. Volunteer. For many years, I’ve been able to present at our local Women in Science event. I am disappointed when my schedule does not allow it. Seeing the young ladies in my sessions, and watching them in other sessions, is inspiring. Participate. Going to a conference, academy, symposium, or summit? Don’t just attend. When you can, present. Host a workshop. Moderate. Make a map or app. Put yourself out there and have give-and-take with others — communication and collaboration.”

What is Lauri’s advice to a new professional in these fields? “There are many job opportunities out there; you need to take a leap. You may need to move, more than once. Internships and summer GIS jobs are the gateway to a full-time position. That experience may set you apart from the other well-qualified candidates. While some positions have strict rules and regulations for how you must do your job, if you have a job that allows flexibility in how the task is performed, do more than just complete the requested task. Can you automate the task? Can you give the requester more than they asked for? Can you teach yourself something new? There is so much to explore.”

Two of Lauri’s favorite quotes:

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

—Mark Twain

 “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

—Charles Darwin

What are Lauri’s favorite maps? She said, “I love the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Recently, I downloaded all of the years that were available from the Library of Congress for Sioux Falls. One of the years was not available, but I was able to find a hard copy at the South Dakota State Archives. I worked with them to scan the hard copy. I now have the full library available for internal use, and, guilty pleasure, had a full hard copy volume printed for myself. I love nothing more than grabbing my Magnabrite Magnifier (which I’ve had since the beginning of my career), and pouring over the changes to Sioux Falls. I’ve created links to the Library of Congress URLs on our Open Data site, too.

To find out more about Lauri and her work, see:

 The City of Sioux Falls Open Data site that she manages.

The City of Sioux Falls Parcel Finder. Lauri has been managing a version of the application for a decade or more. She says, “Use it! Please put our data to work!”

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