Colorful Careers – GIS Specialist

Photo credit: Joanne Ellarson

“I do get to go out with the GPS unit and I love getting outside on the trail and I think it’s just awesome that I get paid for hiking the trail sometimes.”

-Tiffany Stram

Tiffany Stram gets paid to hike. And develop interactive maps and applications that disseminate information about the Ice Age Trail. And support her coworkers with IT resources. Actually, she has so much to do that she enlists volunteers to help gather data by hiking the trail. But her favorite work days are when she gets to take a GPS unit out on the trail and hike.

Stram has been working in the Geographic Information System (GIS) field for over twenty years. She is currently the GIS and Technology Specialist for the Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA)—the organization that oversees the 1,200-mile National Scenic Trail located in Wisconsin.

Stram’s position encompasses a wide range of responsibilities. For the technology part of her job, she handles IT issues for the IATA; for the GIS part, she is responsible for mapping the trail and collecting extra data to make the maps interactive. The Ice Age Trail is incomplete; new sections are being added and existing sections sometimes get rerouted, so there is a need for updated maps and data.

“If you look at our interactive map, there’s different layers on the map and there’s information about each layer,” Stram says. “For example, we have campsites along the trail and we have information behind each campsite that says what the name of it is, public-private, and things like that. It’s a database that also has that geographic, spatial component as to where it is on the Earth.”

A grassy hiking path through a wooded section of the Ice Age Trail.
A section of the Ice Age Trail on the Morain Kettles Preserve. Photo credit: Tess Julien.

Stram supports the rest of the IATA staff by creating and managing tools that help them gather information. When the trail staff is scouting to expand and locate the trail, they use a tool Stram helped develop to track their location so they can plan the route when they return from the field. Stram monitors and manages public maps and resources for the Ice Age Trail. 

“I am really excited right now to be expanding our online presence with different interactive maps,” she says. “Our Hiker Resource Maps that we put up a few years ago, that was a big accomplishment because we didn’t really have a good interactive map with a lot of information at that time.”

Stram measures how well she’s doing her job by how much she’s helping her coworkers. Right now, she’s developing a project to improve field work.

“When [the IATA staff] collect information on the trail in the field, it’ll just sync when they get back in and look at the computer and be easier for them to use and do their jobs,” she says.

A grassy hiking path through a field.
A section of the Ice Age Trail on the Morain Kettles Preserve. Photo credit: Tess Julien.

Stram emphasizes that GIS Specialists should have skills such as technology proficiency and problem-solving, all while having a detail-oriented nature.

“Things might not go as planned,” Stram says. “You get an error and try to figure out why something’s working the way it is. As with any database, one little typo can affect a lot of things.”

Stram expects crowdsourcing information to become a larger part of GIS work. Other people, such as the IATA staff, can draw maps or use apps to gather data she can use. In the last year, the IATA has started using volunteers to gather trail data. The organization started the first group off with a formal training session before sending the group out to take pictures and document information.

“Since then, we had a couple volunteers who pretty much took it and ran with it themselves with the information that we had and some documentation we provided them,” Stram says.

Woman with a GPS Unit strapped to her back. The GPS Unit has a pole coming out of the top that ends above the woman’s head.
Tiffany Stram with a GPS Unit. Photo credit: Joanne Ellarson.

The IATA still needs to evaluate how the past year went in order to make improvements to the crowdsourcing process, but Stram expects the crowdsourcing practice to expand. In the meantime, she still enjoys collecting data herself.

“I love it when I can get outside and hike the trails, but I also really like that I’m helping others be aware of what’s on the trail and plan their hikes, and helping others be able to enjoy and explore the Ice Age Trail from the products that I’ve helped develop,” she says. 

The wide range of projects and responsibilities in Stram’s position as GIS and Technology Specialist keep work both interesting and challenging. Stram says that juggling multiple projects can be difficult, but ultimately everything that goes into this position makes it the only job she can see herself doing.

“I love my job and I consider myself very fortunate that I ended up in a position that I went to school for and that I enjoy, and that I was able to get a job in the outdoors using this technology,” she says. “So what would I be doing without this? I don’t know.”

Stram is currently working on maps geared toward tourists and visitors of the Ice Age Trail. The maps will include information about lodging and small businesses along the trail. The goal of these maps is the same as the goal of all of the Ice Age Trail’s maps: getting information to the public.

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