Alumna Kate Berg: GIS for the next generation
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)—defined as a system that creates, manages, analyzes and maps all types of data—often conjures up an image of mind-numbing streams of statistics, tech and tedium.
But University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) alumna Kate (Keeley) Berg (MS ’17), GIS lead at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), is putting GIS on the map—in ways that chart a new course for the next generation of professionals.
“What I love about GIS are the possibilities,” said Berg. “You can keep it dry and technical and still be good at it, but it also can be a great outlet for creativity. You can have fun and explore new ways of doing things.”
By sharing memes, funny photos and gifs that deal with common issues with the GIS community, Berg said she hopes to make the field a bit more lighthearted. In her free time, she also makes maps “just for fun.”
“One of my favorite events is the annual 30-day Map Challenge,” said Berg. “Mapmakers from all over the world create a daily map for the entire month of November.”
In one of Berg’s “Challenge” maps—called “It Ain’t Easy Being Greenland,” she illustrates the variety of distortions that are produced by 10 different projections of the planet’s largest island.
“It's kind of a cool concept because you can't take a 3D surface and perfectly map it on a 2D surface,” said Berg. “There's always going to be some kind of distortion. So, you need to choose the right projection for the job.”
Another project, titled “The Lake Michigan Triangle,” was featured on the 2021 GeoHipster Calendar. Resembling a pirate’s antique treasure map, Berg combined her love of scuba diving with mapmaking, using ArcGIS Pro to synthesize shipwreck spatial layers of datasets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
That kind of fresh thinking—and humor—landed Berg among the “22 Young Geospatial Pros To Watch In 2022” by xyHt, a monthly print magazine and online resource for geospatial professionals. It’s also inspired global interest. Berg, who uses the handle @pokateo_maps on Twitter, now has over 20,000 followers—along with a bit of “star power” in the field.
“People have approached me at GIS conferences, asking if I am ‘THE Pokateo,’ after which I’m invited to join them in a group selfie. I guess that makes me a minor celebrity,” said Berg, laughing.
What drove Berg to engage with GIS in a novel way began as a need for support—when she took a GIS position at a consulting firm in Detroit straight out of SEAS.
“I didn't really have other people doing GIS with me,” said Berg. “I felt kind of alone. So, I wanted to see if there were others experiencing things like software errors, and tools not working. I wanted to find a community.”
That’s when Berg discovered a group on Twitter, #GISChat, where users share experiences and information. Soon after, she found the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), a multi-disciplinary geospatial organization that provides professional education and training—within a vibrant community.
Berg is in her last year serving on URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet, an advisory board made up of “passionate, young geospatial professionals.” She is currently the chair of the Outreach Committee.
“We try to make the GIS world a better place for young people, and help them to navigate early career issues,” said Berg. “One of the flagship initiatives is our Mentoring Network, connecting people with the support they need.”
Berg offered two notes of career advice for those entering the field.
“Create a portfolio for your résumé that showcases your mapping work,” she said. “It's a great way to show off your skill set to potential employers. Rather than telling them that you ‘took this class, and you have this skill,’ show them what you can do.
“My current manager said that my portfolio is one of the reasons he hired me,” Berg added.
“Secondly, GIS is an awesome tool, but it's still a tool. You must decide what you want to apply that tool for. If you’re at SEAS, you're already interested in the environment. But within that scope, GIS can be used for so many different things. So, pick the topic that you’re passionate about, and then find a way to use GIS to serve it.”
Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy
As a case in point, Berg discussed her current position at EGLE.
“There are divisions within EGLE for most environmental topics,” said Berg. “And within these divisions, there are nearly 200 people who are using GIS—whether that's collecting field data, mapping the results of chemical plumes in groundwater, or sharing what we do using StoryMaps. My role is to be a recognized GIS resource for those staff.”
Berg was the first to step into the new position of GIS lead—created less than two and a half years ago. One of her main objectives is to bolster an initiative to improve transparency and increase public access to EGLE’s maps and data. Toward that aim, Berg drives the publication of EGLE’s content through its open data portal (gis-egle.hub.arcgis.com), and writes a regular public-facing newsletter. You can learn more about what makes EGLE spatial in this StoryMap.
Having completed a BS in ecology, behavior and evolution and a GIS minor for her undergraduate degree at UCLA, Berg chose to broaden her knowledge by pursuing the specializations of Behavior, Education, and Communication (BEC) and Environmental Policy and Planning (EPP) at SEAS. Her background prepared her to serve, however, as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) for three technical GIS conservation courses for undergraduates—for which she was honored with the student-nominated Outstanding GSI Award.
“I originally came to SEAS because I was interested in the environmental communication field as a way to share my love of the environment with the public,” said Berg. “And through teaching, I found that I loved the overlap of the environment and GIS. That’s what helped me to solidify my path forward.”
Berg recalled her master’s project as another highlight of her SEAS experience. Her multi-disciplinary team created a GIS-based collaborative decision-making tool for regional conservation planning that was StoryMap based.
“The master’s project was one of my favorite parts of the program,” said Berg. “The classes were interesting and the professors were great, but being in that group and working directly with my peers, Dr. Currie (our faculty advisor), and Doug Pearsall (our client at The Nature Conservancy) was just fantastic.”
Before getting back to work, Berg asked to give a shout-out to her SEAS colleagues.
“If there’s one thing this whole conversation is about is me trying to find a community, right? Whether it’s the GIS Twitter community, or the Vanguard Cabinet community.
“But it’s also about the SEAS community—and the friends I made there.”