10 Questions: Dr. James Mower

Dr. James Mower is a familiar face across the New York State GIS landscape.  Having started at SUNY Albany almost thirty years ago, he has mentored hundreds of geography and GIS students whom have gone on to work in a wide range of government and industry positions across the state.  Over the past two decades, Westchester County GIS has employed at least six of his students as full-time employees and numerous summer interns.  His teachings have contributed significantly to the continued development of the Westchester County GIS program.

eSpatiallynewyork:  You’ve been at SUNY Albany for a while now – how long?

Mower: I started in the fall of 1987.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Take us back to your  doctoral work. Your PhD came from the University of Buffalo– one of the early most recognized centers of GIS research in the United States – in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Who was your mentor at Buffalo?

Mower:  My mentor was David Mark who recently retired (from teaching, anyway). Dave was a great mentor—he let me run with some unusual but ultimately successful projects.

eSpatiallynewyork: What classes are you teaching these days? 

Mower:  I have focused more on programming courses recently. I have a 2-course Java programming sequence that has become a lot more interesting with the exploding interest in open source GIS. I’m retooling my courses to focus more on mapping libraries like the GeoTools package from OSGeo  (the program that also supervises GRASS, QGIS, GDAL, and other great tools). I also teach a Python course aimed at ArcGIS scripting (at least for now).

eSpatiallynewyork:  How has teaching GIS/geospatial at the university level changed over the last 5-10 years?

Mower:  The biggest changes are yet to come. Cartography and GIS are learning how to embrace mobile platforms with smaller screen space. Generalization issues in mapping have never been more important. Along with mobile mapping has also come global navigation satellite system position finding and its use in almost every cell phone app out there. Also, the coming revolution in autonomous vehicles will impact our field in many unforeseeable ways.

eSpatiallynewyork: What’s the focus of your research these days?  Specific projects? 

Mower:  Most of my current work involves the use of GPU computing for retro landscape rendering techniques like line shading. I also work in augmented reality and hold a patent for related technology.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Is there much discussion among the SUNY universities and colleges regarding geospatial research needs and/or coordination?

Mower:  Yes—in fact, our proposed Master’s in GIS program (in final approval stages) was informed a great deal by the professional GIS user community in the Capital Region.

eSpatiallynewyork:  University support remains good for the geospatial sciences?

Mower:  Yes.  The University has committed itself to our Master’s in GIS through two new hires—Shiguo Jiang, a remote sensing/environmental specialist from Ohio State and Rui Li, a specialist in Cartography and GIS from Penn State. Both Shiguo and Rui are very well liked by our students and have engaged in ambitious research programs.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Where are geography and planning students landing jobs these days? Government, business, industry – any “market” seem better than another?

Mower:  The two primary markets for our students are private consulting firms (often civil engineering but also environmental firms as well) and governmental agencies at all levels.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Anything going on the Department of Planning and Geography with regard to Open Source software and products? What software products you using these days?

Mower:  We are all very interested in this area. QGIS seems to be popular at smaller not for profits in our region. As I said above, I intend to use these packages more in my programming classes. Competition in this field is good!

eSpatiallynewyork:  There is a lot going on in the “GIS Certificate” space these days and I see SUNY Albany offers both an undergraduate and graduate version. How is this program working out?  Who is enrolled – mainly matriculating students or people in the existing work force looking to advance their career path?

Mower: As part of our MS in GIS, we want to also address professional GIS certification. We’re still working on this and think it might be doable. Our 15-credit graduate Certificate in GIS is still quite popular, especially for students already accepted into master’s programs on our campus.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Do you see many “cross-over” students from other academic programs at the university (College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, School of Criminal Justice, School of Public Health, etc.) taking GIS coursework?

Mower:  Lots. We have had many students from Anthropology, Sociology, Public Health, Environmental Science, Earth and Atmospheric Science, and others. They bring interesting disciplinary perspectives into our classrooms.

eSpatiallynewyork:  So what’s the next big thing in GIS/geospatial?

Mower:  Autonomous vehicles, UAVs, and augmented reality, in my humble opinion!

eSpatiallynewyork:  Any particular way or direction you’d like to see GIS expand in New York State? (i.e., something missing, something like your “vision”)

Mower:  Compared to many other states, GIS in NY is in pretty good shape. My ‘vision’ has to do more with how GIS is used than how many people use it. I would like to see our vendors, Open Source folks and others find new and more interesting visualization techniques than what we are accustomed to seeing. When I hear someone say ‘that’s too hard’ or ‘that takes too much time,’ that’s an application niche just waiting for a developer. Google Earth demonstrated the fact that using GIS didn’t need to be rocket science—let’s continue that trend into other areas of GIS development and use.

eSpatiallynewyork:  If you weren’t in academia and teaching – and had to do it all over again doing something else – what would it be?

Mower: A musician! Or an astronomer! Or a motorcycle racer! Or…too much to do!!

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