Shoreh Elhami is the founder of GISCorps, a URISA program that coordinates the deployment of volunteers to communities in need around the world. GISCorps was endorsed as a program by the URISA Board of Directors in October 2003 and since then has attracted over 4,000 volunteers from 98 countries worldwide. To date, over 950 GISCorps volunteers have served in 175 on-site or remote missions in 61 countries.
Shoreh was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.
Q: So, Mrs. Elhami, where are you located and what do you do?
A: Shoreh will do!
Q: You are the boss, so it will be Shoreh!
A: I’ve lived in Central Ohio for 29 years; the first 11 years in the City of Columbus, and then moved to Powell — a small suburban city north of Columbus. I work for the City of Columbus Department of Technology; my title is Citywide GIS Manager.
Q: Shoreh, how did you get into GIS? You are / were an architect at one time, correct?
A: Yes, I studied architectural engineering in Iran (where I was born and raised) and practiced as an architect/ urban planner for a few years before we decided to leave the country. I was introduced to GIS at the Ohio State University where I ended up going to graduate school to study City and Regional Planning. I applied for a Research Assistantship position and was assigned to a project that used GIS for studying and analyzing the impact of urban sprawl on a protected watershed. Talk about luck as not only did I end up working on an interesting project, but also learned how to use GIS to conduct analysis. It meant no more drawing / overlaying polygons on mylar and calculating results by hand; I was in love!
I was then offered a job shortly before I graduated, and ended up working at a planning agency where I used my GIS skills for building models and conducting a variety of analytic models for a County Master Plan. This was in the early 90s when GIS was not used as often in a master planning process, so it was a unique and gratifying experience.
Q: What does a Citywide GIS Manager do in Columbus, Ohio? I’m not sure we’ve ever interviewed one. It sounds like something that can make you have fits upon occasion.
A: At the City of Columbus, GIS is used in almost every department, both on desktop as well as online. We have over 300 datasets,+/-100 data editors, and 30 or so GIS applications which are all supported by my team. We work very closely with GIS users and decision-makers on creating new datasets, maintaining the software, geodatabases, and designing applications. Our most recent project is our Open Data Portal. It’s a work in progress, but it is where anyone with interest in Columbus GIS data can visit and download data. In short, it’s an exciting and at times quite a challenging job!
Q: Sometime around 2001 you started this small thing called GISCorps. Why? What does it do?
A: Yes, it was in 2001 at the URISA conference in Long Beach when I started talking to a few colleagues about an idea which later on became GISCorps. The idea was and is quite simple as it’s about making one’s GIS skills available to entities that need GIS assistance but cannot afford to employ GIS professionals. Originally, I thought most of our projects would be on-site and involve teaching. However, we learned very quickly that our volunteers’ skills are very much needed after disasters. In fact, our first few major missions were launched shortly after the 2004 Asian tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, and then Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
We recently launched our 176th project, and over 950 volunteers have been deployed to those projects in 61 countries. The majority of these projects are conducted remotely (80%) and +/- 40% have been in response to disasters. We currently have over 4,000 registered volunteers from 98 countries. It’s worth to mention that for on-site projects, we always make sure that the travel expenses are covered by the organization that is requesting assistance. For remote projects there are no [travel] expenses, as volunteers work from their home / office, using their own equipment.
Q: When you started there weren’t a lot of volunteer organizations around. Now there’s HOT and Ushahidi. What makes GISCorps different? The same?
A: You’re right, we are the old kids on the block as far as GIS volunteering goes! Several new organizations were formed shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and we actually collaborate with several of them via a relatively new organization called Digital Humanitarian Network or DHN. I think what differentiates GISCorps from other organizations is our recruitment model. We take time to not only select candidates from our extensive database, but also for almost every project (except large crowd-sourcing ones) we get on the phone and interview volunteers to make sure they are the right person for the job. We take that quite seriously, as our volunteers’ work represents who we are. Another distinction is that a large percentage of our volunteers are hard-core GIS professionals and ready and equipped to perform all and any GIS-related tasks. Having said that, we also engage in projects that do not require a lot of GIS skills (mostly crowd-sourcing projects) and many of our volunteers enjoy those efforts as well.
Q: How many people do you have helping you run GISCorps? The organization is a non-profit, correct?
A: GISCorps’ business is run by a Core Committee, which at this time has seven members. We meet virtually once a month, and at least once a year face to face.
We are a program of URISA, and since URISA is a non-profit organization people who donate to GISCorps can benefit from our 501(c)(3) status.
Q: What was the best mission of GISCorps? Assuming you can pick the best one.
A: Please don’t ask me to do that, as I have many favorites; it’s as if they ask you which one of your children you love the most!
Q: So with all of that going on — there are more important things to discuss. What’s the best Persian meal you make?
A: Seriously? You’re asking me about my culinary skills?! Actually this may be surprising to some of your readers: I love cooking, and if I may say so — when I have time — I can deliver pretty nice dishes. My daughter loves my Tahchin the most, so I pick that one. You can check out a recipe (not mine but somewhat close to how I make it) here.
Q: We talk about people being geohipsters — our best definition is: doing things differently, or making a difference in the world of GIS. So are you a geohipster?
A: If getting joy and satisfaction from spending time on geo matters that helps others is doing things differently then I’m a geohipster! But I really want to be clear — and this is not self-deprecating — GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers; that’s who is making a difference. We, the Core Committee, are just instruments to help make that happen.
Q: The last question is yours — anything you wish to tell the world?
A: The world? That would be too audacious of me… All I know and believe in is that we are here on earth for a flicker of time, and we should focus on using our skills on doing good. That’s all that matters!