Saving the Environment with Science: GIS Analyst Michelle Richardson Talks Computers, Maps, and Design

By Hugo age 17, and Christy age 14

Michelle Richardson came into our office with a smile on her face and a map in her hand. She is the GIS Analyst at the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department. We spent the morning discussing her career, personal life, and experiences working at the department. She was very kind and conversational, asking us about our school and lives.

Richardson moved to the west side of Madison when she was five, and has spent most of her life in this area. After receiving her undergraduate degrees from UW Madison, Richardson taught math in Kenya for two years with the Peace Corps. When she returned, she enrolled in UW Madison and received a master’s degree in Environmental Monitoring.

Michelle started working for Dane County when she was 29 years old and is now a seasoned problem-solver with two children, ages 14 and 16. She loves spending time with her family doing fun activities like karate, in which she recently earned a black belt.

In our interview she was personable and honest, thoroughly explaining the nuances of her career.

What position do you hold?

MR: I was first hired in 1997 as a Conservation Data Analyst for the Land Conservation Department. In 2005, the Land Conservation Department merged with Office of Lakes and Watersheds, Parks, Real Estate staff to create the new Land & Water Resources Department, later adding a new Water Resource Engineering division. Once we merged together I became a Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, Analyst.

How would you describe your job?

MR: My job as a GIS Analyst is to maintain and help support GIS information and software use in our department. GIS data is any type of data that can be made into a map. I also work with web design and mapping applications and provide computer support to the department.

What is the education and training required for this job?

MR: For GIS work, the minimum training I would suggest is a bachelor in science that focuses on computer work and planning or environmental science; however, having a master’s degree will give you more skills and potentially make you more marketable. Also, there are under graduate and graduate GIS certificates available that may also provide a solid foundation. Ideally a good background would have both GIS theory as well as practical experience

Why did you go into an environmental field?

MR: My mom was a naturalist, and she worked at the Arboretum. She sparked my initial interest in plants, animals, and geology and I think it was a natural progression that I was interested in the outdoors and spatial data. In particular, I enjoyed learning about rocks and the history of the Earth which led me to pursue undergraduate degrees in Geology and Math. I also became interested in the environment to take care of the natural world for future generations.

What is your motivation for protecting the environment?

MR: It is both protecting and promoting, so I want to give people tools to make decisions that maintain and protect the environment (example – create a map to show where there might be water quality concerns) and to promote the outdoors so other can enjoy and appreciate it (example - develop a web map to help people find a park). As for my motivation, I think what drives me is that I’d like to leave the world better, or at least not worse, than it was given to me, hopefully better. I´d also like to help promote opportunities for other people so they can value the natural environment

Have you had any interesting projects recently?

MR: One interesting project we're working on is migrating a few of our websites over to mobile applications so patrons can use their tablets and phones to find out more about our facilities and also so that our staff can have access to spatial data in the field.

This morning, I was working on a map of the Lussier Family Heritage Center, a Parks facility located in a natural setting on the southeast edge of Madison. We are trying to promote it not only as a site for weddings, but also to market it as a venue for businesses to reserve for meetings during the week. We are working to create an overview map that is informational as well as eye-catching.

Do you have any advice for people going into your field?

MR: One thing I really enjoy is working on many different projects and working with different people. In a lot of other fields, you may do the same thing over and over and, unless, that is your main focus, you may lose interest over time. What's nice about this job is that you get to do computer work, database management, graphic design, web design and programming, as well as create informational materials including maps, presentations, posters, and brochures. It's kind of a multimedia type of job that works with not only the side of your brain that does analytical work, such as database work and computer coding, but also the other side that does artistic design. My advice is: if you like both worlds, I think this would be a great fit for your personality.

Also, one thing is to be aware of changing technology. An interesting and challenging aspect of this job is that when you are working with hardware and software, things are always changing. I see that with the types of equipment and apps my kids and other high schoolers use. You master one type of technology then something new comes along. Be aware that things change and the people that adopt the changes often expand their own knowledge as well as other peoples’.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

MR: There are a couple of challenging aspects. First, there can be social challenges, as in there are some challenging personalities. but I think you'll find that anywhere. Second, I find keeping up with the new types of technology including hardware and software can be difficult. Since I do so many different things and do not have much extra time, if it's not easy or quick for me to pick up, I tend not to spend the time working on it. That can be challenging for me, because I know I need to keep up-to-date but I need to carve out time to do it

What is the best part of your job?

MR: My favorite part is when I complete something and I think it looks or works great. Sometimes for website work I’ll point out my work to my kids! Also, when you complete something that's more difficult, such as the design of a complex map or database or writing a bit of useful code, it’s a very satisfying feeling. There are so many projects to work on and seeing them all completed over time and put to use is the most rewarding part.