John Reiser: “The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone”

John Reiser
John Reiser
John Reiser is a Business Intelligence Analyst at Rowan University. He previously worked in state government and in a private planning firm. John is active in several professional organizations and also serves as a consultant on GIS, cartography, and data analysis projects. John lives in New Jersey.

Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?

A: I am a business intelligence analyst at Rowan University. I work primarily with University Advancement, dealing with fundraising recordkeeping and prospect research. We use technology to better connect with and support our alumni, as well as help find individuals who have both the capacity and the inclination to give philanthropically to Rowan. I also consult and work on projects in my spare time.

Q: You hold a graduate degree in urban planning. What attracted you to GIS?

A: The first time I can recall really getting excited about GIS was during my undergraduate program in Geography. The program at the time focused on raster-based analysis and did very little with vector data. This was 2004 and there was no easy access to large datasets like county-wide parcels. Thankfully, I was able to get copies of Burlington and Gloucester Counties’ parcel data, driving to their respective offices and picking up CDs, merging the data together and then using it to project ridership potential for a planned light rail in Gloucester County, comparing it to the recently-opened RiverLine in Burlington County. I continued research into access to transportation while pursuing my masters at Rutgers. Even though I initially wanted to pursue physical and transportation planning, I would get involved with projects that required GIS, and continued to build my knowledge on the software and myriad types of data available.

Q: Do you miss planning? How much of what you learned in planning school do you apply in the job you hold today?

A: I do miss working as a planner and I miss working with GIS on a regular basis, but I make up for it by working on side projects. My current project is NJ Parcels, an easy-to-use statewide listing of property assessment and sales information for New Jersey. I get to wear many hats as I work on the site, from system administrator, database administrator, software developer, UI/UX designer, and project manager. So far, I feel like I am successful in juggling the different roles and responsibilities to keep the site running smoothly. Over 2015, NJ Parcels served up 9.7 million pageviews to approximately 3 million users. I also develop and manage Florida Parcels, which is an attempt to do the same for the Sunshine State.

I do want to use the data I’ve collected to build the site for planning projects in New Jersey. I have assisted NJ Future to overcome difficulties matching the spatial data to the assessment records, namely where there are multiple lots but only one assessment record that contains the additional lots in a free-form text field. I am currently working on a project looking at distributed ownership in New Jersey — people who purchase property a distance from their listed owner address. This can help understand a variety of planning issues, from absentee landlords, transitional neighborhoods, market speculation, and the effects of out-of-state investment in places like the Jersey Shore. I am planning on releasing my findings in the spring of this year.

Two things I learned from planning school still weigh heavily in my mind: the need to build consensus, and having patience. Projects, both software development and large redevelopments plans, benefit greatly from consensus-building efforts. That extra work at the beginning trying to get buy-in from stakeholders and from the community might be seen as side friction, but it ultimately makes the project go smoothly. Patience is also critical. It takes patience to build a plan and see it through fruition. Not everything can get solved in a single meeting or a code sprint, and that’s okay.

Q: You have experienced GIS in state government, in academia, and in private consulting. Which environment is the most interesting? The most challenging?

A: State government can be frustrating because of the nature of the business. Interesting projects can spring up and die just as quickly as the whims of the politicians in charge change. I was told on occasion to simply stop working on a project because it was no longer supported by the Governor’s Office. Private consulting can be incredibly rewarding, but it has its own difficulties. The profit-driven nature of the private world shapes the outcome and the timeframe. Sometimes you just need to produce, even if it’s not the product you originally wanted to produce.

Academia allows for greater flexibility in exploring a project. Some truly amazing work has originated within academia. And if you’re fortunate to work with students, you’ll be constantly amazed what bright, passionate young minds can produce. However, the nature of the academic world can also be far more difficult to navigate than government or the private sector. Colleagues that block or stifle your work can do so simply because they can. Performance metrics are often ignored, and I have been amazed at the amount of “thinking with the gut” that is performed in higher ed. Unlike government, you’re not keeping your fingers crossed that the next election things will be better, instead you are stuck playing actuary and guessing if it is worth waiting around for retirements to occur. Academia can be an amazing place to work and be a contributor to some awesome projects, but it can also be immensely frustrating as Sayre’s law will demonstrate itself time and time again if you do not have the right people involved.

Q: You are equally well versed in Esri technology and in open source geospatial technology. Is mixing and matching geotools a necessity, a challenge, or a luxury?

A: To me, finding the right tool for the job is both a challenge and a necessity. I’ve seen fanatics on both sides — commercial and free software — produce projects that don’t meet their full potential because they’ve married themselves to a single software platform. Taking a step back and evaluating the options is important. Just because something happens to be your current favorite doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice for the task at hand. The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone.

Q: What are you working on now, and what technologies do you use?

A: At work I write SQL for Oracle on a daily basis and I use PostgreSQL for my side projects. It is amazing where the differences and similarities lie in the two DBMSs. I’m grateful that the one I find myself less frustrated with happens to be the free one.

I primarily use Python as my programming language of choice, but I have been looking into using Node.JS again after about two years of not using it to build an API to NJ Parcels. I also need to brush up on R and use that in my projects more often. I also use Tableau both at work and in my other projects. It’s a great tool for quick visualizations of complex data.

Q: Bike, beard, beer — you are in firm control of the ultimate hipster triad. Do people call you a hipster, and how do you feel about it if (when?) they do?

A: I don’t get called hipster often; I don’t think I dress well enough. I think I tend to come across more as a lumberjack with a desk job.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for the GeoHipster crowd?

A: When I was teaching GIS in higher ed, I stressed the importance of projects and building a portfolio. Recent grads looking for work often have little to show to potential employers, so having some tangibles that demonstrate your capabilities is crucially important. I would always encourage them to work on projects that aligned with their personal passions. It’s much easier to convince yourself to dedicate the extra time if it’s something you enjoy or strikes your interest. It’s also much easier to stick with the project after you’ve gotten the job. I’ve started countless projects over my 15 years in the workforce and most were abandoned or anything but successful, but I’ve learned a lot from each project. Take that experience and funnel it into your next project. I never would have thought that I’d be developing web sites around assessment data back when I was initially struggling with getting and using the same data a decade earlier. I don’t know what I’ll be doing ten years from now, but I know there will be a wide variety of options ahead of me because I continued to learn, adapt, and put my mix of talents to use. I’m likely preaching to the choir, but I feel it needs to be said: keep working towards the next big thing.