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Advice and Insights from a GIS Specialist to Planners

Jul 25, 2022
Having a career in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) did not come to mind when I first enrolled in post-secondary education; I pursued an Honours Bachelor of Arts and Science at Lakehead University in Geography with a minor in Criminology at first. Through this program is where I was first introduced to GIS. During my second year Intro to GIS course, my professor offered skills that could be used in the workforce. She certainly played a pivotal role inspiring and fostering my passion for data and supporting me in my decision to pursue work experience with GIS. I interviewed for a student position at the City of Barrie (a city of approximately 153,000, located about an hour north of Toronto) after I had graduated in 2016 and then I pursued a post-grad diploma program at Fleming College to qualify me as a Geographic Information Systems - Application Specialist. I was able to get a temporary role with the City of Barrie and then was able to secure a full-time job there soon after. Having a strong mentor truly makes a difference and can be pivotal in steering you in the right direction. During my time at Fleming, GIS was just starting to gain popularity. If you are interested in pursuing GIS schooling in Canada, Fleming College in Ontario and COGS at Nova Scotia Community College are great options.
About how this blog post came to be, I wanted to relay the role that GIS Specialists have in working with planners, or as an alternative career path for trained planners or those with planning education that enjoy the spatial aspect of planning. Within the City of Barrie, GIS falls under a separate branch of Information Technology (IT). More and more, I am starting to see different city departments utilize and incorporate GIS into their daily duties; the GIS Branch acts as data keepers to maintain, organize, edit, and store all corporate data. Regarding our work with the Planning Department, our work is used both as a support and liaison with the Planning Services Technical Coordinators, a position similar to a Planning Technician in other local governments. We help with everything from parcel fabric, zoning, planning applications, site plan pre-consultation, various planning applications, and more.
Some examples of recent projects include analyzing data for a safe consumption site and ensuring that certain criteria was met and verified its viability. We also conduct 3D analysis on any development that is 4 stories or higher; this could be anything from conducting a 3D line of sight analysis to checking for LAN/Wi-Fi network interferences to shadow studies in the downtown core, especially with a lot of the new high-rise buildings being built along the City's waterfront. In addition, we also review several types of plans in which accuracy is integral to make sure that parcel data is correctly input and referenced. For reference, our GIS department maintains over 40,000 parcels and their respective data. We also work with site survey data and surveyors to ensure that the data is input into the correct coordinate system and that the control points are in the correct spot. We do transformations as appropriate to ensure that the numbers on the plan of survey or plans can match what we’re putting into the real world. Accuracy is the most important thing. If you put something three meters off where it's supposed to be because the numbers are inputted incorrectly, that's a big difference and can cause a lot of problems. Our GIS work is very important when it comes to digitizing the data which is often used by planners at some point. Lastly, GIS is working with our planning department in the beginning stages of implementing ArcGIS Urban, which is a software that allows planners to view the city in a 3D model with the ability to design a smarter city with the use of GIS technology. This technology allows planners to view their city in a 3D environment to complete shadow analysis for proposed high rise buildings and view multiple city wide projects at once.
One of the most interesting and complex components of my job has to do with water infrastructure development. Many big developers want to come in and get their shovels in the ground as quickly as possible, but none of that can be started without first planning and preparing the water infrastructure. It is an area in my career that I am so fascinated and excited by. Also, the creation of a pre-servicing agreement was a result of the demand to have the development process expedited. We are now able to start adding data and pre-servicing new parcel developments, so that once it is approved, developers can immediately start building. Through my work experience the last six years, I have come to truly appreciate and love the complex systems of infrastructure development as there are so many individuals and rules involved to reach an end.
For planners working with GIS Specialists, maintaining open lines of communication is crucial, as it can make the project process move along much more easily and efficiently. And certainly, don’t be afraid to ask for clarity about anything, so that every individual or department involved is on the same page and can mutually benefit each other’s workflow. For me, I have found that asking planners for some more background on a project allows me to better contextualize the goal of my work. As well, being patient with those still learning. People need to start somewhere and you may be the first person ever to explain something to someone. That matters in the grander scheme of both your current work and future career.
To end out this blog, I will offer my advice to anyone interested in pursuing GIS skills or a career in GIS:
  1. The first and most important piece of advice would be to take a course. Whether that is formally through an educational institution, or by watching YouTube videos. The great thing now is that there is a lot more access for individuals wanting to pursue GIS, with a lot of free course offerings and even the possibility of auditing a course; some suggestions include: Foundations of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) offered by Lynda.com, or ArcGIS Urban: Smart City Planning offered by ESRI.
  2. Second piece of advice would be not only to ask a lot of questions, but to ask the right questions. Talk to people in the field, what their day to day looks like and what their strategy for learning GIS was. Find yourself someone in the field who you can see yourself in as inspiration.
  3. Lastly, I would recommend that you start to think in the context of real-world problems; critical thinking skills are most valuable in handling real-world problems.
If you can accomplish these three big things, you will be very successful in whatever you choose to do.
Brittany Zucchetto is a GIS Specialist with the City of Barrie. She loves collaboration, innovation, and any project that includes web configuration. Brittany helped with the configuration and implementation of the City's GIS Portal Discover Barrie, and hopes to one day become a GIS Analyst.
Paying it forward through knowledge sharing and community investment, along with Brittany's knowledge contribution, a donation has been made by Your Planning Career to the Barrie Food Bank which provides food relief to individuals and families of the community who are in need.