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The Fantastical Life of a GIS Analyst
by Staff Writers
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Dec 19, 2013

Joe Nigro (right) and his colleague and co-instructor, Avirup Sen Gupta. Image Credit: Claire Lewis, North Luangwa Conservation Project.

What do climate modeling, malaria and black rhinos have in common? It turns out that Geographic Information Systems can be adapted to study all three. Wherever GIS is being used for humanitarian purposes, senior programmer analyst Joe Nigro is never too far away.

"The common factor is knowing how to use GIS. I've worked on a range of projects from plague modeling in the American southwest to semi-automating glacier boundary extraction in Alaska. I never know what I'll be working on next. GIS opens up so many possibilities; it opened up the world to me," said Nigro.

GIS is a computer modeling system that allows for the integration and collective analysis of geospatial data from multiple sources including satellite imagery, GPS recordings and textual attributes associated with a particular space. The strength of GIS is that it can be used in so many different applications.

"I am very mobile. No matter where I am, I can modify GIS programs on my laptop to suit the particular project" he said.

As part of the HIMALA team, Nigro assisted in developing a free, open-source modeling system that isolates glacier and snow melt contribution to stream flow in an effort to help minimize the impact of flooding on people and their resources such as food and shelter.

Nigro recently delivered this system to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal.

ICIMOD will train eight partner countries in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region on this system next year. If additional funding becomes available, Nigro hopes to assist by enhancing this system with broader climate change modeling capabilities.

Previously, Nigro used his GIS skills to assist Goddard climate scientist Compton Tucker for four years on an archeological survey in Gordion, Turkey, where Alexander the Great cut the Gordian knot in an attempt to become the ruler of Asia.

Last year, Nigro traveled to 17 countries, a few for work but most for his volunteer activities. Wherever he goes, he is always trying to figure out a way to get involved in projects to help out. He personally funds all of his volunteer efforts. He has no permanent home, little time for a social life, not even a pet. When stateside, he camps out with relatives and friends. His life as a nomad is both complicated and simple, but always gratifying.

"I got to a stage where I wanted to give something back and I have skills that can help people. One of the best things about travelling is contributing because then you actually feel that you have immersed yourself in the place," said Nigro.

In April 2012, Nigro visited his cousin, who is a malaria program analyst for the Clinton Foundation in Namibia. While there, Nigro trained the staff to use their lab's new GIS system both to create time-series maps of malaria risk in northern Namibia and to use as a planning tool for resource distribution. He would like to return there soon to continue with this work.

As preparation, he took a lot of malaria pills. He has had every shot known to mankind, including one containing a small amount of live virus for Japanese encephalitis-which is incurable. "The doctor sat in a chair in front of me and watched me very closely for thirty minutes after I go that shot," said Nigro.

Prior to Namibia, and by special request of two of his friends who live in North Luangwa National Park, Nigro got involved in conservation efforts in Zambia. The park had lost all their black rhinos, which are almost extinct. His friends were in charge of reintroducing a few of them from South Africa back into the park.

They needed to be able to track the black rhinos and to monitor anti-poaching patrols. Nigro used his GIS skills to write programs that would give them timelier monitoring information that they needed, both to ensure there were no gaps in the patrol routes and to understand why some of the rhinos were dying naturally.

"Living within the park in Zambia was terrifying, but I loved it. At night, it is total darkness. All you can hear are the animals. We were right on a river full of crocs," he said.

Nigro just flew to Zurich to discuss ways to become involved in conservation efforts for snow leopards, whose overall habitat in the mountains of central Asia has been dramatically and negatively impacted by climate change. He hopes to use GIS to map areas of suitable snow leopard habitat based on climate change scenarios. Known as the "ghost cat," snow leopards are rarely seen except on remote cameras.

He recently decreased his employment to three-quarter time. He intends to devote the rest of his time to volunteering on global humanitarian and conservation projects, with a focus on Africa and Asia.

"I like Africa. Anything can happen in Africa. You can see the most amazing things and then be stuck on the side of a dirt road, waiting three days for a bus. You never know what to expect," Nigro said.

In addition to his trusty laptop loaded with GIS software, he sometimes relies on solar-powered generators. He typically loads his backpack with a cell phone, a GPS unit, waterproof clothing and outerwear, a headlamp, a portable hydration reservoir, regular and underwater cameras and his Leatherman tool.

Sometimes he even carries his guitar. He brings energy bars for emergencies. His only amenity is a small stash of peanut M and Ms. Although he does not carry a gun, the guides are usually armed.

Nigro claims that he was always adventurous, recalling that he spent a lot of time as a kid playing in the dirt imagining quests. Travel is not in his blood; none of his immediate family is big travelers. Beneficence, however, is in his genes. He is related on his mother's side to the Medici family, who were great patrons of the arts during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century.

"My life has become so fantastical. I want to settle into a normal life, but I don't know how. I don't want to be bored or restless. The plus is that I feel like I am contributing on a global scale," said Nigro.


Related Links
Compton Tucker's work in Gordion
Earth Observation News - Suppiliers, Technology and Application

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