Higher Education

Communicating with Data: Modern GIS Is Web GIS and Storytelling

I recently had a fantastic conversation with John Nerge, who works as the geographic information system (GIS) and data analyst coordinator for Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, to understand what employers are looking for in the GIS field. Nerge had some great advice and tips. For me, it really boiled down to a couple of key things. The first one was simply making sure that you have a digital portfolio built out; hiring managers and organizations want to see what you can do! Secondly, GIS is about storytelling and communicating with spatial data. Ensure that you are familiar with some of the latest tools and methods to build impactful (beautiful) visualizations, maps, and applications.

Please watch our full conversation below:


Transcript of our conversation:

Brian Baldwin:

Hey, everyone. My name is Brian Baldwin. I’m here with John Nerge, who works as the GIS and data analyst coordinator for Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. I just wanted to get a couple of John’s thoughts, opinions, and takes on how GIS has changed in the last few years and really what students and what faculty should be aware of about those changes. So first, John, who are you, and what do you do? What do you do in your role?

John Nerge:

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I have been with Brooklyn Park for the last 11 years now, a typical local government GIS guy. [I do] everything from managing our enterprise infrastructure on the back end, all the way through to publishing intuitive GIS applications on the front end both for the public to use and for all of our internal staff. So, supporting all city departments and operations with their GIS and data analysis needs.

Brian Baldwin:

The first thing I was curious about is, what are some of the key skills for people to come in and get a position or role—what are your thoughts on that?

John Nerge:

At Brooklyn Park . . . we are looking for people who can show that they have begun the journey to learn to think about GIS and communicate with it. Taking the next step beyond just doing the exercises or the work they’ve been assigned. That looks like having background experience in things like automation with Python or ModelBuilder [and] Web GIS experience because, you know, desktop experience is important, but knowing what GIS tools are, like ArcGIS Online, is super critical. Also, basic geoprocessing, and then another one is just showing us that they have some experience thinking about graphic design as well, because GIS is such a visual [medium] and Web GIS even more so. So being able to talk about, you know, how they learn to do things like color and proximity and more actual applications design. That really helps if they can share examples of their GIS work and not necessarily just saying they have the experience but being able to qualify that experience with specific examples from schoolwork or even personal projects.

Brian Baldwin:

So literally being able to give you some URLs or give you some applications?

John Nerge: Absolutely.

Brian Baldwin:

I’ve been in this world [GIS] for a bit now. I know tons of things have changed in the field, but I’m curious to know from your perspective, really being boots on the ground and using this technology day in and day out, what have you seen change in the last five or so years that’s really had an impact on the skills that people need to have?

John Nerge:

I mean you’re completely right. I think that GIS has been so much more than just maps for a long time, but it really has accelerated. I think I can capsulate it. I think there is less a focus on analyzing data, which is, of course, so important, to have those core skills. But there is more focus on being able to communicate with data, or do data storytelling. So that’s using tools like [ArcGIS] StoryMaps, dashboards, and [ArcGIS] Experience Builder to really open up a world to GIS applications that are not really necessarily mapcentric. And really let people explore and understand the information in new and exciting ways.

Brian Baldwin:

Awesome. I love that. I guess the last question I have for you is, what kind of advice would you offer to anyone who is in a program right now or may be looking to revisit their education in the future?

John Nerge:

I think you know the number one differentiator I see when I am looking at job applications is if people have an online portfolio with those samples of their work. And a couple of reasons:

One, it’s still a vast minority of applicants [who] actually provide that.

And two, just to reiterate, showing your work is so much more impactful. To be able to show how you have used GIS. Now if you haven’t built that in yet, again just providing those descriptive examples with text is still great too.

You know, cover letters—I think those go back and forth. Obviously for your application, make sure you are submitting all the required materials. If you are going to take the time to write a cover letter, I advise people [to] start from scratch, which is tough because I know that people are usually applying for a lot of stuff. But really, use a cover letter to talk about why you want to work for that organization. Don’t just write a paragraph version of your résumé. Talk about your skills and experiences and how they align with the organization’s experience and mission. Pull language from the application or from the organization’s website to make that connection for them.

Lastly, don’t get too hung up on minimum qualifications. Of course, you don’t want to blatantly lie on an application, but focus more on quality over quantity. So if you see a job that you really feel you can grow into but they are asking for three to five years’ experience in something and you only have two—if you feel like those two were high-quality years of experience, apply. The worst thing that will happen is the organization will just say no. You’re not going to burn bridges. But if you’re not applying, you’re not going to get those interviews and have that opportunity to learn more about jobs that you may want.

Brian Baldwin:

Awesome. I love that. That’s great advice. And I remember, you know, being younger and starting in the professional world and it’s really intimidating to see some of those three-, four-, five-year minimums, and it can turn people off from applying.

So the last thing I was going to say is to you is, if somebody sends portfolio examples, you’ll open them up and you’ll look at them? I mean, those are things you want to see?

John Nerge:

Yeah, and honestly, as a hiring manager, that makes my job so easy. Because I have a score sheet and I need to be able to say and prove equitably and with evidence, like yes, this person has this experience. If I can point to, literally, here’s the application where they are showing me that experience, it makes my job super easy.

Brian Baldwin:

Awesome. Well, John, I really appreciate the time, and thank you so much for sitting down and answering a couple of these questions. I think it’ll help students and others looking at jobs in the field a lot. Thanks so much for the time.

John Nerge:

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

End of transcript.

To learn more about Modern GIS, visit this webpage with lessons, resources, and stories from other industry professionals and faculty.

About the author

Brian currently works as a Senior Solution Engineer supporting Higher Education and has been working in the geospatial industry for more than 13 years. GIS brought Brian to the frozen tundra of Duluth MN as a digitizer, to the Big Island of Hawaii as a GIS Analyst, and the streets of Milwaukee as a Crime Analyst. Brian has taught GIS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Salem State University. Brian is also a proud Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, father of 2, and husband to 1.


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