Mapping my way through co-op: problem solving in the workplace

Ben Woodward (he/him) is a fourth-year Geography and Environmental Management and Earth Sciences student. In this blog he shares his experience using geographic information systems (GIS) and web mapping work for various levels of government, a private company and his local museum.

Ben's co-op journey:

Ben Woodward taking a selfie

Work term one: As a GIS technician at the Region of Peel, Ben helped improve the region’s 911 address database, used Python to implement a new QA/QC workflow for the region’s building permit data and made a variety of maps ranging from school locations to West Nile virus traps.

Work term two: Ben then moved on to working at the Bayfield Historical Society and Archives, where he was tasked with creating a website and web map showcasing the museum’s collection of historical photographs, postcards and maps. Ben taught himself full stack web development to build an innovative tool that helps researchers and the public learn about Bayfield’s unique history.

Work term three: For his third co-op term, Ben worked at the Canadian Soil Information Service. Here, he brushed up on R and Linux by helping pre-process data for the team’s machine learning based predictive soil mapping tools.

Work term four: For his fourth co-op, Ben worked for the DECIMA Project, a research group based out of the University of Toronto and Brock University. In this role, Ben digitized census and crime data from the Renaissance period and created a three-dimensional map of a city in Italy.

Work term five: In his final co-op, Ben worked with Esri Canada’s Education and Research team. At Esri Canada, Ben developed the mobilizing justice dashboard which provides nationwide maps of access to essential services by cycling, walking and public transit. Ben also assisted with the development of the Complete Streets VR application and presented his work to several groups of industry experts within and outside of the company.

Q&A with Ben:

What has been the most challenging part of your co-op journey?

“I’ve always believed securing your first co-op is the hardest part. You’re not going in with much experience and you’re new to the workplace. There are all these skills you need but you don’t know you require until you see them listed in the applications. It’s overwhelming when jobs want certain technical skills that you don’t possess yet or haven’t learned. Gradually you do learn those skills with experience.”

“Another challenge is finding housing if your co-op is in a new city. A lot of universities will rent out their dorm rooms at reduced prices over the summer terms. During my spring co-op I lived on the University of Toronto campus and even got the opportunity to meet other students interning in the city. I would definitely suggest looking there. Being aware of the housing situation before you accept offers is important, even though a lot of the time students pass up on good opportunities because of this.”

What is one thing you were curious to learn about in your organization?

“Working for a government organization like the Region of Peel gave me very interesting insights into the decision-making, execution processes and functions of the government. My co-op with them was very general so I was responsible for a wide variety of things, from building permits and 911 addresses to history and heritage. This meant that I got to collaborate with different wings of the institution.”

“This helped me understand how things are run, how everything is laid out and the various things the government does for the community that we never even realize.”

What did you enjoy about your company’s culture?

“I liked the workplace culture at Esri a lot. My supervisor’s philosophy was “find smart people, put a problem in front of them that they don’t necessarily know how to solve and let them figure it out.”

“I think this philosophy was really good for my growth and development of my professional skills. I had never done virtual reality development in the past, so it was great to be given the opportunity to figure it out and explore a new area. I was also able to refine my web development skills in this role and saw a lot of growth.”

A beautiful scenery picture with mountain, beach and sea provided by Ben

“I liked that my employer had the trust in me to problem-solve, address a challenge and learn. I enjoy being given open-ended questions in the workplace and solving them. If I ever had any questions, I was a part of a great team that was ready to help me.”

What’s next for you?

”I’ve decided to go the graduate studies route. When I first came to university, I thought with my degree I would be outside a lot more doing field more and learning about the natural world. However, COVID hit, and this turned me into a computer person. It’s definitely been fun learning how to build websites and gain those technical skills.”

“My master’s project will investigate coastal erosion along Lake Huron. We will look under the water within the nearshore to determine how the lakebed changes seasonally. I’ll be able to get outside, go on a boat and use cutting-edge equipment to generate high resolution maps of lakebed geometry and composition.”

“I think it will be fun broadening my skill set and doing something different for the next two years. With mapping and data analysis you can feel disconnected from what’s happening on field, so I would like to collect my own samples for a change!”

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