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Using GeoAnalytics to solve global issues

January 19, 2018

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Adam Pfister C’06, M’10 can’t deny that speaking to the U.N. in early December was a career highlight.

But Pfister’s career is full of highlights. As a solutions engineer on the nonprofit and global organizations team for Esri, he works closely with organizations who are solving global problems like the World Health Organization and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is successfully eradicating Polio.

A graduate of Saint Mary’s University’s M.S. in Geographic Information Science program, Pfister works for a company which is an international supplier of geographic information system (GIS) software and technology.

“A solutions engineer is just a fancy term for talking with customers or anyone interested in GIS technology, understanding their problems, and seeing how spatial technology can help them. It’s a unique opportunity to talk with people doing some really amazing work,” Pfister said. “We work with foundations, nonprofits and U.N. departments and entities, and national organizations — a wide gamut of people.”

During a presentation at the U.N. Secretariat Building in New York City at the beginning of December, Pfister was able to explain how Esri uses GIS that can speed and shift sustainable development. The Office for Outer Space Affairs, together with the United Nations Development Program, organized the “Discovery Day.”

“It was a one-day event, with a number of speakers, and everyone had 10 minutes to talk,” Pfister said. “We chose to focus on those two themes, shift and speed, and what I talked about was shifting our thinking, how GIS is changing, moving more into the web space. And then I talked about how we can use modern technology to really speed up assisting sustainable development activities.”

Pfister was able to share a number of examples, including how one of Esri’s customers is using GIS technology to vaccinate people in remote areas against polio.

“WHO and the Gates Foundation use GIS to isolate remote areas to see if people have been vaccinated for polio,” Pfister said. “There are people on the ground who really need help with the software we have. It’s so powerful that we can get rid of a disease.” Bill Gates has said that he is optimistic that the last case of polio could be seen this year.

Pfister said it was a lot of information to squeeze into a 10-minute presentation. “We wanted to bring a high level view of what Esri is doing and more importantly what our users are doing with the technology,” he said. “I wanted people to realize what’s available now, how it can help them and how quickly they can act on what they want to accomplish.

“There are a lot of really good people in the U.N.,” he added. “We wanted to connect with those people. Ultimately we could provide humanitarian assistance or assist in refugee crisis situations. There are a lot of people who need help and we are in a unique position to deploy our geospatial help when necessary.”

Pfister started working with Esri in 2010 but originally worked with commercial industries. Once he learned about how another team was helping with dispatch infrastructure and services during an Ebola outbreak, he knew he wanted to switch. “I was blessed that it worked out that way,” he said.

Pfister said he knows he joins several other Saint Mary’s alumni at Esri and said he loved his time at Saint Mary’s.

“I was doing 911 addressing work for Dane County in Madison, Wis., when I heard about Saint Mary’s program,” he said. “I was making sure address ranges were correct and going section by section through counties, looking at road segments—really just getting my hands dirty with GIS when I got an email from the university. I saw it was an accelerated program and that really piqued my interest. I knew it would open doors for me career wise.”

Pfister said he’s grateful for the programming courses he took at Saint Mary’s. “I didn’t have any interest in programming, but I saw what it could do, and now programming is one of my strengths and it has opened a lot of doors. It’s an asset I continue to develop and I’m thankful that it was part of the curriculum. Teachers taught it in a way that gave it context of how powerful it could be. The faculty is great; John Ebert is an all-star.”

Pfister said that the GIS area is growing quickly and opportunities are endless. “The future has shifted already to using the web and using configurable applications,” he said. “We can get people up and running without a lot of time. We can take an app, configure it, create a survey using Excel and deploy it within minutes, with tons of configurable options. My job is to educate people and help them navigate the breadth of their software. We don’t want them to drown in it. We want to help them figure out what will work best for them.”

View Pfister’s presentation on UN Web TV.