Monday, May 27, 2024

Mapping our future

Why the core principles of why we make maps remain relevant

Darin Brook’s love of learning forged his path from the vast fields of rural Saskatchewan to the rugged hills of Western Newfoundland. He channeled his fascination with mapping new ways of understanding our world into a career that has helped to make College of the North Atlantic (CNA) a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) landmark.

From Campsite to Classroom

Brooks grew up connected to nature. He shared his parents’ love of the outdoors and they spent countless fun-filled hours together camping, fishing, and learning.

“Through the years, subject matters like biology, ecology, and earth sciences started to interest me,” he said. “At the time, I really had no idea that using technology to collect and analyze natural resource data was a career. I just kept my options open – hoping that my career would find me.”    

When Brooks began his studies at the University of Saskatchewan, he wanted to take every course he could and learn as much as possible. He filled his schedule with a broad selection of subjects but found himself with just enough free time to squeeze in one more course. There was only one more available that fit with his schedule: geography. That course would prove to be the trailhead for the rest of his professional journey.

“It was only by luck that I took my first geography course,” he said.

Studying geography introduced Brooks to his professors, Doctors D. and L. Martz, Dr. A. Aitken, and Dr. O.W. Archibold. Their profound and positive impact on him helped him find his way.

“Their passion for human, physical, and technical geography was infectious and before I knew it, I was swept up into everything biogeography,” Brooks said, adding Dr. K. Fung and Peggy MacTavish of the Saskatchewan Research Council helped him link natural science and technology through GIS, remote sensing, and cartography, “I owe my geoscience career and the passion for what I do to these educators.”          

Designing the Future of GIS

Brooks went on to complete two honours degrees concurrently at the University of Saskatchewan, Geography and Land Use, and Environmental Studies. As soon as he graduated, he was snapped up by a consulting firm based in Prince George, British Columbia and put his expertise to work in the wild.

“I was fortunate to have a boss, David Kim, who encouraged and supported professional development,” Brooks said. “He provided me the opportunity to continue working and enroll in my Master of Science at University of Northern British Columbia.”

While gaining valuable experience with industry and working on his master’s degree, Brooks was recruited by CNA, an opportunity to guide the future of GIS.

“I was cold called while I was working as a consultant in British Columbia in August of 2009 and started the GIS Applications Specialist post-diploma program at CNA less than a month later,” he explained.

The GIS Applications Specialist program equips students with the technical expertise they need to produce and analyze spatial information for effective planning and reporting activities in a broad range of disciplines. Graduates work in a wide variety of fields, including GIS programmers/analysts/system operators, applications specialists/consultants, ecosystem IT managers, utilities managers, database managers, and land information managers.

“A lot of the skillsets I bring to the classroom were learned during my time in consulting,” Brooks said. “It’s great to work with so many people with diverse backgrounds in areas related and unrelated to my personal and professional interests. It’s also satisfying to stay connected with former students who have entered the geospatial community and to hear about where their education has taken them around the world. Several of the graduates have now become trusted colleagues and personal friends.”

Mapping our Society

One of Brooks’ most recent professional accomplishments is a fitting example of the impact GIS continues to have in Newfoundland and Labrador, and around the world.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brooks didn’t need to look hard to see evidence of GIS becoming more accessible to an increasingly diverse audience.

“When John Hopkins University used GIS and cartographic techniques to track and provide daily visualizations of the epidemic, it provided people an alternate context to understand what was going on around them,” Brooks explained, an example of how GIS is opening a whole new world for academics and consultants to explore the ‘science of where.’

Brooks had been closely following the application of GIS to the social sciences over the past decade, so when he reconnected with long-time colleague and friend Dr. Angela Carter, an Associate Professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, it came as no surprise that the two discovered connections between their work. Those connections were an opportunity for Brooks to explore new ways to incorporate GIS into subject matters that intersected with his social conscience.

He contributed to the scientific report Mapping Fossil Fuel Lock-In and Contestation in Eastern Canada, part of the Corporate Mapping Project which was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

“Dr. Carter explained that her current research collaboration might benefit from supplementing their data by adding a mapping component,” he said, “I was introduced to the team, and we started to brainstorm where I could contribute as a geospatial analyst and cartographer. How could I use GIS and cartography to meaningfully contribute to social change, advocacy, and sustainable development? The more I met with the authors of this report, the more I started to understand the complicated relationship between those who develop policy, those who finance and generate revenue from policy, and those who are affected by policy, particularly Indigenous peoples.” 

His involvement with the report broadened his understanding of the fossil fuel sector by giving him broader insight into how big picture initiatives, such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030, are playing out locally.

Contributing to the report is just one of the more recent publications in a steadily growing list for Brooks. He co-authored his first paper in 1996, while still in university, and saw it published in 1997. Since then, he has authored or co-authored more than a dozen papers, articles, and conference presentations – with another three or four in progress or in the submission phase.

Over the years, Brooks’ GIS expertise has enabled him to contribute to papers dealing with sustainable development, ecology, mammalogy, health care, and sociopolitical issues.

“Because GIS and cartography often provide support and evidence, it isn’t unusual for GIS analysts to contribute a wide range of subject matters,” he said. “While the mediums and technologies through which maps are created and accessed has evolved, the core principles of why we make maps remain relevant. Cartography has always been an important tool in the physical sciences: mapping where things are in relation to another, providing accurate directions and distances, and identifying patterns. But it is also an indispensable tool for sociopolitical scientists to reveal and communicate complex sociopolitical phenomena in a spatial context. It helps researchers gain insights into patterns, disparities, and relationships that can inform policymaking.”

A recent example is CNA’s partnership with Western Health to form the Western Health Informatics Partnership for Health Care Improvement. The study examines patient use of Western Health services from 2016-2021 (over two million visits), with primary investigation focusing on where patients come from, what facilities and services do they use, and for what purpose, particularly specialist appointments. By putting this data into a geospatial context, Western Health will have valuable information to better allocate health options like telehealth.

CNA also partnered with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) Health Services to make it easier for those who have previously suffered a stroke to access information about rehabilitation facilities and community supports in this province. The Acute Stroke, Rehab and Community Integration Project will see CNA use its GIS expertise to develop an interactive map, accessible online, that will inform patients, healthcare providers, and policy makers.

Sharing with Students

The Mapping Fossil Fuel Lock-In and Contestation in Eastern Canada is part of a larger Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant project that will likely generate more reports and papers in the coming years. Brooks hopes to collaborate on more reports in the future in part because of the many ways doing so benefits his students.

“The experiences help broaden my understanding of the role of GIS in industry and society,” he said, “It provides me with knowledge that I can bring back to the classroom. Publishing plays a fundamental role in the scientific and academic communities. One the most important reasons is simply to facilitate dissemination of knowledge. Reports allow researchers to share findings, insights, and measurables with the broader scientific community.”

Sharing such valuable information is something that goes both ways in Brooks’ classroom.

“My education isn’t complete. GIS requires a lifetime commitment to education,” he said, noting techniques and software change quickly. “It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to inspire and empower my students. I genuinely enjoy helping them develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed. Seeing their progress, from grasping the fundamentals of cartography and GIS to becoming proficient in complex spatial analysis and statistical techniques, is incredibly rewarding. It is always enjoyable to watch the rapport build within the cohort, and then watch them leverage that rapport into problem solving groups. One of my favourite memories is coming to the lab one evening and finding 10 or 12 students sitting around a whiteboard problem solving an assignment together.”

Brooks is proud to acknowledge how much he learns from his students, who each bring their unique educational background, heritage, language, and perspective to the GIS field.   

“I see my job as the opportunity to educate and hopefully inspire the next generation of geospatial professionals within an active learning environment,” he said, “I love learning. I love being around learning. Teaching at CNA also allows me to work closely with students, colleagues, academics, industry, and government partners on current relevant research.”

Darin Brooks is the instructor of the GIS Applications Specialist post-diploma program at CNA’s Corner Brook campus. He is completing his PhD in Boreal Ecosystems and Agricultural Sciences under Dr. Robert Scott at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Grenfell Campus.

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Ryan Crocker
Ryan Crocker
Ryan is CNA's Manager of Communications. A graduate of CNA's Journalism program, Ryan worked as a journalist for more than a decade, winning multiple awards, before transitioning to marketing and communications. He returned to his alma mater in 2023 and contributes articles to CNA Currents working closely with Editor Ryanne McIsaac.

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