In their own words – how GES Students are using data to help wild places via the NPS

Published: March 28, 2019

Photo of Morgan, Caroline and David

Geography and Environmental Sciences graduate students Morgan Cameron (left), Caroline Hildebrand, and David Smith.

Whenever we are asked what we do for work, we usually have to explain that the National Park Service is much more than park rangers, and that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is much more than a mapping platform. It is a combination of a content management system and data analysis software that address real-world problems by incorporating spatial, non-spatial, and temporal components into data analysis and visualization. Though the public may interact with GIS products such as paper or web maps, they often do not see the processes that compile and manipulate these datasets into an aesthetically-pleasant form that can be consumed and contributes to produce knowledge. Offices across the National Park Service (NPS) that offer support to individual national park units include the Air Resources Division, Wildland Fire Program and the Resource Information Services Division (RISD). We are interns, and as part of the RISD team we design, create and support NPS geospatial services such as web mapping, national datasets, and web content management at the federal level. Our positions are part of a newly-created (2018) internships agreement between the NPS and the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences managed by Dr. Rafael Moreno. This enables students to apply to the NPS for these paid internship positions that mutually benefit the NPS and add to students’ experiences and professional portfolios.

Morgan Cameron, NPS GIS Specialist: GIS and Technical Resources

My name is Morgan Cameron and I am a second year graduate student in the Masters of Geography and Geospatial Science program. I will be graduating from the Department of Geography and Environmental Science with my M.A. this spring. I began working with the National Park Service as a GIS Specialist intern in January 2018. My first project involved assisting our help desk service with the transition from an email platform to a system called JIRA, a help desk software that utilizes tickets to document incoming requests and concerns. The purpose of the transition was to reduce the amount of requests and questions lost in inboxes and to improve issue tracking ability. My responsibilities include daily assignment and distribution of tickets in JIRA, along with weekly progress checks to maintain workflow and track follow-ups with clients to make sure all questions get resolved.

Additionally, I manage the collection of the most common problems we experience for the development of technical resources for publication. Reference document development has been a consistent part of my position of a GIS intern. I began with transferring existing documents to a new, consistent template, and have continued to review, edit, and upload the instructional reference documents regarding the common geospatial issues we receive in our system. Each of these documents is reviewed for 508 compliance as a part of federal policy. This process also included a shift in the space where they were hosted, which I maintain and update.

Over the past few months I have been creating and updating both our internal and public-facing websites. These include the internal remote sensing and GPS websites for park service employees, as well as the external GIS, Cartography, and Mapping subject site that serves the public. This subject site is designed to provide the public with an overview of everything the National Park Service does in regards to GIS, cartography and mapping. It is also gives public access to data downloads and maps. Throughout this process I have been able to develop a relationship with many members of the NPS GIS Council, which presides over the direction of geospatial efforts across the Park Service. Alongside the Council, I identified specific resources that the public would be interested in and looking for when searching for NPS GIS, which I used to build out the site in the NPS specific content management system. The first draft of this site was successfully published at the end of 2018. This content management system project has clarified my strengths, solidified my areas of interest, created portfolio content, and provided me with real working experience in resource development. Through this process, I have built relationships with industry professionals both in the National Park Service and our sister agencies.

David Smith, NPS GIS Specialist: Cartography and Data Management

My name is David Smith and I am a second year MA student in the Geography and Environmental Sciences department. I started in the GIS Specialist internship position for the National Park Service a year ago. My main role is focused on cartography and data management with an emphasis on web mapping. Most of my internship has revolved around creating web maps for customers within the National Park Service. This usually involves two avenues: using our internal web mapping platform called NP Builder or making custom web maps with javascript. Web map projects that I have been a part of have included: NPS Sea Level Rise Mapper, Dragonfly Mercury Citizen Science Project, Connecting Veterans Affairs to National Parks, Where Can I Hike Map, and Mapping Youth Programs in Parks. Each of these projects has been rewarding in their own ways as the challenges to meet customer requests are unique. 

The second part of my internship description is data management. Data integrity and data duplication are problems many organizations face, National Park Service is no exception. Because our data is public, it is of high importance for the bureau to attain data integrity and adhere to their own data standards. About six months ago I began to apply SQL language I had learned from my Spatial Databases course at UC Denver into my internship. I generated SQL reports that summarized the data gaps in the national dataset. It revealed that many of the mandatory data attributes were incomplete for roads, trails, and points of interest. This sparked my motivation to create a tool that would prevent incomplete features from entering the national dataset. I have been working closely with GIS Enterprise Architect at the National Park Service to test out options that can address this problem. The solution is the ArcMap Data Reviewer Tool which generates a report in which the reviewer can correct the flagged data features in the geodatabase without exiting the reviewer tool. I am currently working on a python script to expedite this process and push this solution to the regional offices to reduce data gaps in our national dataset.

Caroline Hildebrand, NPS GIS Specialist: Data Management and Automation

My name is Caroline Hildebrand and I am a graduate student in the M.S. in Environmental Science program within the Geography and Environmental Sciences department at CU Denver. I have been working as a GIS Specialist intern with the National Park Service Resource Information Services Division in Lakewood, CO since October 2018. Over the past four months I have been given a multitude of opportunities to hone my skills across the full-stack of web map development. Primarily, my projects have focused on using Python to automate the migration and management of national datasets from other departments (like the USGS) into NPS administrative boundaries. To put it simply, I write code that takes the lakes, streams, roads, railways and other useful data from enormous national datasets and parses them out by park with a cookie-cutter, or “clip” tool. To give an idea of the size of these datasets, the National Hydrologic Dataset includes all waterways within U.S. borders, including the smallest seasonal streams. The whole process takes a massive amount of RAM and space, and so we do most of this work on a remote server through Amazon Web Services. Automation is essential for this size of a project. Instead of clipping the datasets to each park myself in ArcMap, the code does it for me. I can leave it running overnight or even for a few days while I ski and eat ice cream. The resulting cookie-cut of these data are transferred to the front-end in which they are used to design and develop standardized Park Tiles. Park Tiles are the sleek, clean, cartographically-sound maps that act as the backdrop for all NPS web maps created by NPS employees across the country (think: different background map options on Google Maps, but specifically for park maps).

Currently, I am working with David on a demo that teaches NPS employees how to generate web maps on ArcGIS Online from data they already have, like Excel spreadsheets, and then publish them to our internal web mapping software, NPS Map Builder. The process of designing these demo sequences with a beginner’s mindset has offered me a chance to reflect on how far I have come in the GIS field since I began my GIS Certificate in the fall of 2017. It wasn’t too long ago that I entered the CU Denver graduate GIS Certificate program with only an Intro to GIS course under my belt. With the help of remarkably encouraging faculty and the strength of this small GIS program, I now have professional skills and technical knowledge that will carry me forward into a flexible and interesting career in GIS and Environmental Science. It has been an incredibly rewarding journey.