How to go places in earth observation “See the world, capture the opportunity, get out alive!”

Continuing this year’s series of talks aimed at helping early career professionals understand opportunities in geography, the AGI’s Early Careers Network welcomes James Cutler to the virtual stage to talk about earth observation. With a breadth of experience spanning some 30 years under his belt, James talked us through some of the milestones in his career to date and reflected upon what he has learned, to share with us the secrets of his success.

Kickstarting James’ interest in geography and firing him in the right direction from the outset was school teacher, Jim McFarlane. It’s the passion Jim instilled that still resonates with James today. From school, James went on to do a Geography degree before travelling the world soaking up different experiences.

“Where these opportunities present themselves, reach out and grab them”

Acknowledging that you must build up a knowledge base, James followed the call of the work, going places such as Nepal, Oman, Bolivia, Somalia and Ethiopia. On the cusp of the digital transition at the time, the work involved analogue measurements and low-tech solutions but furthered James’ view of the world itself, helping him understand it in a wider way. It was the use of hard copy Landsat images for identifying improvements to water management in low rainfall areas that led him to remote sensing, the world he has called his home ever since.

“Be alert to the horizon”

A new generation of satellite imagery was becoming available. Digital tools for remote sensing were emerging and James relished the opportunity to understand what could be done with the data in terms of insight, knowledge and action. Adoption of technology has been huge and to this day, the digital landscape continues to evolve. It is important to understand the details of our data, like authenticity and provenance, but James also stressed the importance of following emerging technologies, gaining an understanding of the art of the possible and thinking about how to overcome the challenges and problems we ask today.

Know about everything, but don’t know everything

There is an increasing convergence between spatial data and the wider digital economies, so much so, that a digital geographer could quite easily find themselves overwhelmed but as James points out, we don’t need to immerse ourselves in the detail. Our skills as geographers are in abstracting the layer of detail and understanding how we can translate data into actionable insight that answers our customers questions.

“Telling the stories we already know”

Part of providing that intelligence to our customers revolves around the way we portray ourselves. We need to be able to reassure our users, customers and clients that what we have produced has its basis in evidence, that the black box has a lid and that we can look inside it and unpick the logic. Conveying information is a skill. The well known phrase a picture paints a thousand words describes the importance of visualising our data, but the same importance should be placed upon helping others understand the important role geography plays.

As far as James is concerned, geographic information has never been as important as it is now. The digital geographer needs to balance technical skills with soft skills, to understand the value of their work, to be adaptable to change and to be interested in what they do.

Passion. Opportunity. Technology. Knowledge. Sharing.

View the event recording.