Preparing for hurricanes, creating scripts with Python and responding to pandemics are just a few of the job functions of Johann Sidial, 31-year-old geologist and AAPG Member who works with the government of Sint Maarten’s Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure, which is abbreviated “VROMI” in the Dutch-speaking country.
In his role as geographic information systems officer, Sidial is responsible for managing and executing the acquisition, analysis and visualization of datasets across Sint Maarten, a constituent country for the Kingdom of the Netherlands located in the Dutch Caribbean.
Sidial also serves as the VROMI’s drone pilot, where he works to broaden the inventory of aerial imagery across the island.
These functions help him work toward a larger strategic goal: establishing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure.
“Ultimately, the aim is to shift from the current silo approach of geospatial data management to a holistic, horizontal framework that encourages collaboration and will improve the accessibility of spatial data,” he said.
GIS is an organized collection of computer hardware, software, data and personnel designed to efficiently capture, store, update, manipulate, analyze and display all forms of spatially referenced data.
GIS emerged as a field in the late 1960s and since then has been used extensively in transportation, education and government. It also has led to the development of location-based services and web-mapping services like Google Maps and Waze.
Discovering the World of GIS
Sidial said GIS was a natural career choice for him because it allowed him to draw on all of his strengths and experiences.
“I used my geology background to catapult the application of GIS and remote sensing in spatial planning, my information and communications technology side furthered my ability to deploy GIS solutions, either on-premise or cloud-based, and finally my affinity for field work ensured that I maintained a balance between office and field. I’m out in the field at least once a week!” he said.
Sidial grew up in Marabella, a town located 50 kilometers from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. As a self-declared introvert, he spent much of his childhood reading. Among his favorite publications was National Geographic, a magazine subscription he looked forward to receiving monthly by post.
“Most of the times, I would be captivated immediately just by the front cover, followed by the front-page titles and then sit for hours reading and letting my imagination wild. As my NatGeo collection increased, my inquisitive nature surfaced and my interest in physical geography and earth sciences began to develop,” he said.
“I translated this interest into my academia and focused specifically on geography during secondary school. It came as little surprise to my parents and teachers when I decided to pursue geology at the tertiary level.”
Sidial discovered GIS while taking introductory courses during his undergraduate studies in geology at the University of Alberta.
“I came to the realization that at the core of all maps, analysis and visualization was geospatial data. There was something intriguing about being able to capture field data, process or analyze it on your PC, then finally visualize the end-result on a digital map or print,” he said. “I was not satisfied with just an introduction into GIS, I needed a deeper dive to understand more.”
Sidial went on to enroll in the geoinformatics master’s program at the University of The West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. The intensive two-year curriculum included both lecture-lab presentations and research projects. In addition to enjoying technical courses including as spatial analysis, remote sensing, spatial databases and enterprise GIS architecture, he greatly appreciated another course, “GIS and Society.”
“Sometimes as a GIS professional, you can get lost in technical side of things and neglect the societal application and relevancy of your output,” he said. “I view the societal use of GIS as a bi-directional process, wherein, GIS can influence society and conversely, society influences GIS.”
Serving Sint Maarten
Shortly after graduation, Sidial accepted his current position with the government of Sint Maarten, where he has the opportunity to apply what he learned in school.
“Now that I am working within the public sector, each time I create a new project field I carry with me these teachings as a guide and motivation that really puts into context how my work will benefit the people of Sint Maarten,” he said.
With a population of 40,000, Sint Maarten encompasses the southern 40 percent of the divided island of Saint Martin, with the other 60 percent belonging to the French overseas collectivity Saint-Martin.
Sint Maarten became a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in ٢٠١٠ and now holds equal constitutional status to Aruba, Curaçao and the Netherlands.
The island was hit hard in 2017 when Category 5+ Hurricane Irma hit and caused significant widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure.
Sidial said that GIS plays an important role in the government of Sint Maarten.
“We use GIS for the efficient management of our road infrastructure, land parcels, domain lands, addresses, utilities and zoning data, that all help our executing departments make informed decisions. As our island is susceptible to hurricanes, tsunamis and rainfall-induced flooding, we also incorporate risk and hazard assessment layers in our GIS database,” he said.
Sidial noted how the St. Maarten has shifted away from static maps and opted for web and mobile-based GIS.
“Digital maps are dynamic, consistently updated and can be accessed internally and externally,” he said.
During his 18-month tenure at VROMI, he has developed three projects from the ground up: a mobile platform for monitoring and maintenance of the sewer network; an operations dashboard enabling the fire department to follow hydrant and building inspection data; and high resolution mapping of the landfill to monitor terrain changes and identify areas for potential fire outbursts.
Fighting Coronavirus with GIS
Sidial also used GIS to support the Ministry of Health during the island’s COVID-19 response.
“We leveraged our existing GIS architecture to assist the Ministry of Health in the development of public and internal operations dashboards. For the public platform, my development strategy was to create a ‘one-stop’ platform where we could disseminate information being received from the Department of Communication (Emergency Center video livestream, PSAs, COVID-19 factsheets) and the Ministry of Health COVID-19 statistics,” he said.
Sidial developed statistical graphs with multimedia components for public distribution and incidence and aggregated maps of COVID cases for internal use.
“Once we had a grasp on the spatial distribution of positive cases across the island, we used this information to conduct targeted community surveys which utilized digital survey forms that captured GPS coordinates of potential households that were exhibiting COVID symptoms. This data was relayed in real-time to a central database and the health officials conducted an immediate follow-up and subsequent testing,” he said.
“For the community mapping component, as our human and capital resources were limited and time was a crucial factor, I opted for an open source GIS solution that was easy to configure, deploy and train the community volunteers and nurses,” he added.
A Versatile Discipline
Sidial said he appreciates how GIS projects allow him to learn about the many different fields that he serves while developing solutions.
“As I am developing the sewer network GIS, each day at the plant I am asking questions and absorbing as much information as I can from the engineers on site. From pipeline criteria, water treatment processes, stormwater modelling, inspection data etc., I am leaving there a bit more knowledgeable than the day before,” he said.
“With the assistance to COVID-19 cases, I learned a wealth of knowledge from the epidemiologists and nurses I collaborated with,” he added.
Sidial said versatility of careers in GIS provides some stability during a time of economic uncertainty worldwide.
“In GIS, you are exposed to so many fields that benefit either directly or indirectly from your input. Eventually, you may notice that become well-versed in the core topic each project addressed. As such there will always be a need for your skillset whether it be in spatial planning, utilities, geology, engineering or even health as seen with the recent COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
“It’s clear to see that GIS expands your job scope and more importantly, it prepares you to adapt and be confident in your new work environment should you experience a lay-off.”
A Good Career Choice
Sidial believes that GIS is good career choice for geoscientists like himself.
“The geosciences already set a solid foundation on the application of GIS in petroleum, hydrology, structural, ore deposits etc.,” he said.
He added that an interest in field work provides a bridge between geoscientists and GIS professionals.
“Every geoscientist loves a day or two in the field mapping outcrops. As my mentor, Xavier Moonan, would say, ‘There is no substitute for field work!’, and there definitely is no shortage of that in GIS!” he said.
Sidial has advice for young geoscientists considering careers in GIS.
“Leverage the resources that already exist. Join an organization chapter or society that has a GIS component to it. As a member of the AAPG Trinidad and Tobago Chapter, I regularly participated in field trips and it was during these excursions I improved my abilities in mobile GIS, GPS mapping and UAV (drone) capture. Organizations such as the AAPG can truly open several opportunities once you align yourself with the right mindset and stay involved,” he said.
“In addition, make a special effort to attend at least two to three conferences a year. It’s at these events where your networking opportunities and exposure to the latest trends and technologies will increase,” he added.
Putting in the effort was certainly worth it for Sidial.
“What fuels me as a GIS professional is the never-ending journey of learning, the willingness to think outside the box and my determination to remain current and motivated,” he said.