Sometimes a thing is more than a thing.

“A change is gonna come”  — Sam Cooke

Something mundane and innocuous happened today.  This morning I noticed my wife was throwing away something that we as a family have outgrown.  And yet, the implications of its removal impacted me far beyond the item itself, and I’ve spent a good part of the day thinking about what it means and what it says about seasons in our lives. 

So what was the item…a humble Diaper Genie…that’s right, a special trashcan for disposing of baby diapers.  So why would this item cause such philosophical reflection?  Its a pretty great product, custom built for the challenges of diapers, but that is what it is specifically for, nothing else.  And as of this morning, we no longer need one in the house.  This is ultimately a good thing, as it means the twins have reliably moved beyond the need for diapers and us parents beyond the travails of potty training.  But it also means our babies have grown past a stage of life, and as parents, we won’t see that stage again.  

This one was actually the second edition of this product we’ve owned, the first having been given to us by a member of the #oMC and fellow parent at our first child’s baby shower over seven years ago.  Seven years.  For seven years this product has been a requirement in our family life – a thing that I attended to on an almost daily basis – and after today, I doubt I’ll ever own one again.  And while a significant part of my heart aches at the idea that this season of having babies in our lives is changing, I’m simultaneously inspired about what it means for the future. 

As any parent will tell you, raising kids is hard work, and ours have been no exception…and twins, woohoo, its a ride.  During this time my wife and I have also been building careers, hers a steady crescendo, mine with a bit more peaks and valleys.  For me at least there has been a recognition that regardless of what I thought I could undertake, or effort I thought I could commit to a project, the reality was that it would ultimately be metered by the time and energy required to be the parent I want to be.  With today’s marker in time, its clear that this phase of intense commitment will soon be getting easier.  Its true, when children turn 5, they become much more self reliant and the overall task of parenting lessens a bit.  

Am I complaining? Absolutely not…this period of life has been magical, and even with all the challenges of the pandemic these last almost two years, we’ve had our children home and part of our daily existence in a way that office / day care life never allowed.  And while it feels a bit like the leaves are turning yellow on this season of parenting, it simultaneously feels like green shoots are starting to emerge on the next season of work.  I’m lucky that my passion is my vocation, even when it is hard, it is fun.  And there is so much that I want to do…which hasn’t changed in the last seven years…its just now I can feel that there will be more energy that can go into it.  I try not to look past any single day when it comes to the family, and I won’t rush this now, but its clear the days are starting to get longer.  

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Interview in KU Grad Paths

Earlier this summer, I was asked by a colleague at the Graduate School of my alma mater, the University of Kansas, to contribute content for their Grad Paths newsletter. The goal was to describe my work, post-degree, and provide advice to current grad students. It was an interesting exercise to concisely describe my work to a non-geography audience, and in a context of what I think is important for current graduate students who want to pursue work outside the academy after graduation. Below are the questions and my responses.

What do you do? (Usually we ask that this relates in some way back to how they use their graduate school knowledge and/or training in their current position if possible.)

I am an applied geographer that specializes in geographic information science and technology. Through Sand Hill Geographic, I provide consulting and technical services to organizations that are trying to better utilize the geographic dimensions of their information. Being in Washington DC, I try to work at the intersection of the national security, diplomatic, and development communities.

In the last eight years I’ve been a Geographer at the U.S. Department of State, an executive at a geospatial software startup, and now run my own consulting business. I’ve worked on projects related to several U.S. Government agencies including the Department of State, Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as the World Bank.

Each of these organizations need to answer questions that are critical to their operations, and geography (technical, physical, and human) can play a large role. Below are few examples from each institution:

• For the State Department, understanding how conflict or natural disasters will impact vulnerable countries is a key concern. What are the dynamics of refugee movements (who are they, where are they coming from, where are they going), and what social, economic, and policy impact will it have regionally and globally? Numerous examples of this work can be found at the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) website,

• For USAID, what is the spatial extent of a drought and how do we preposition relief supplies to deliver aid? Where are all the buildings in an area with an on-going malaria eradication program, and how can we plan to spray all the buildings?

• From a national security perspective, how can we discover, monitor, and predict threats? This can range from mapping the movements of foreign militaries to the spread of Ebola. The ability to anticipate threats gives policy makers a decision advantage. Geographic technology, spatial analysis, and increasingly human geography, are valuable tools for our national security analysts.

• For the World Bank, the goal is to make financial investments that will reduce poverty and increase equality. In order to prioritize investments, fundamental questions about a country’s exposure to natural disasters, and their related disaster risk management plans, are required. Mapping risk and measuring the impacts of financial investments on that risk are key metrics for evaluating a program’s effectiveness.

In all these cases, I help build workflows that focus on the geographic elements that provide insight to these questions, and construct technical systems to collect, analyze, visualize, and share data and analysis products. Often the technical solutions are very similar, but their implementation into various bureaucratic institutions is very different.

The need for quality geographic data to use in these systems is a common requirement, and is often lacking. To address this problem, I helped create MapGive, a crowdsource mapping initiative at the State Department designed to catalyze open geographic data production to support the humanitarian, development, and disaster risk reduction communities. This project has supported open mapping efforts all over the world, and has played a significant role in many large natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies.

My graduate school experience provided the academic training and applied research in Geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Remote Sensing, that form the core of what I do today. I came to DC well equipped to do the work.

What is your favorite aspect of your job/career?

My favorite part of this work is simply the huge array of issues that can benefit from the application of geographic knowledge and technology. The explosion in geographic technology means we have an ever-expanding array of tools to collect, analyze, visualize, and share data and analysis. These are essentially new vectors for doing what geographers have always done…derive new insights by utilizing a spatial perspective. The work is never boring.

What advice do you have for current graduate students?

Enjoy the process.

Graduate school is grueling, and often takes a toll on students. Focus on the goal of completing the thesis or dissertation, and work to integrate writing into your life systematically. Realize that getting the PhD is actually the start of your career.

Make your work relevant.

If you want to be a practitioner in your field, spend time outside the academy. Take the internship with an agency or company. It is critical to get real world experience. Often you’ll find you have more than enough academic knowledge to do the job, but you lack the social network, understanding of bureaucracies, or funding mechanisms that are required to turn that knowledge into policies or projects. This experience will not only make you more effective, it can provide a unique kind of confidence when you return to school, that you can and should finish the degree.

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