Mapping Out A Course
Lansdale Council President Matt West is teaching Kutztown University students the where and the why of Geographic Information Systems, all the while finding his place in life
Most children confined to the backseat of their parents' car during lengthy trips are usually accompanied by a favorite doll, or book, or — in this day and age — a Nintendo DS or iPhone.
For Lansdale's Matt West, he had a map.
West's father was an ordained minister, and West would often find himself and his parents traveling from town to town between the ages of seven and 13, seated comfortably in the backseat of the car, map in hand.
Flash forward to West's anticipatory excursion into the college world. One day, while touring the school with his mom, they took a break and flipped through a book on the various majors offered at Kutztown.
Mrs. West came across geography, read the description and blurted out, "Hey. This is you. You should be a geographer."
West read it, thought it sounded cool, and was suddenly no longer an undeclared freshman.
"What it is is I've always been questioning things and the power of observation and watching how people relate to their surroundings," he said. "I am always finding patterns and geography is in everything we do."
That love of maps from an early age, coincidentally, led to a college career of geography.
Before he knew it, West was going places. It certainly draws a path to his current job as a senior transportation planner with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission where he helps develop policy and decision making processes for the Philadelphia region.
Even moreso — it defines why West recently signed on as a teacher at his alma mater of Kutztown University, where the geography major teaches an upper-level course in Geographic Information Systems.
"Most come to geography based on two upbringing paths: military kid or preacher's kid. Both of which, you're thrown a map, and told to be quiet and follow along with the map," West said. "Since then, I'm always looking at maps and I have a good sense of direction. Maps are the tools of geographers."
And you can't have GIS without maps.
The "Where" and the "Why"
So, what is GIS? As West puts it: Linking spatially-distributed databases to maps.
Let's put it simpler: Ever use Google Maps or Mapquest? Then you've experienced GIS.
"I don't teach how to use Google Maps," West said. "I teach how to build the system."
Don't get it confused with GPS. GPS, West said, tells you coordinates and nothing about where you're going or where you've been. GIS takes the coordinate and adds value to it.
"It goes beyond geographers," West said. "Biology, marine science, geology — they are all using it. If you make a map out of something, you add data to it. If add data to map, geography focuses on the where and why, and GIS enables you to add the 'what's the importance of it being there?' The 'why.' It transcends all majors, all disciplines."
Take sociology, for example. The specialized science studies the relationship between people and where they live in specific places. Using GIS, a socilogist can map trends of social behaviors, West said. Information can have values added to it through analytics, thereby determining the relationship between people and the Earth.
A municipality like Lansdale Borough is poised to institute GIS as a new way to map out its electrical, wastewater treatment, road and storm sewer systems. Now, everything is on paper or in someone's head.
That's perfect for West, as he heads Lansdale's council as its president. No better position than to help push what he sees as the wave of the future.
Electric lines can be digitized. Code enforcement and police can access property records and code violations, and then that information can be used, for instance, to map out and analyze high densities of code violations or high crime areas.
"The power of GIS far outweighs costs associated with it," he said. "It makes sense for a municipality to put infrastructure in GIS. Once it's built into the network, then all departments are able to interconnect with it. Then, you pass the benefit to the taxpayers and businesses."
West, a native of Williamsport, PA, used GIS to settle in Lansdale in 2001. By geographic analytical ability, West defined Lansdale as the geographic center between Kutztown and Philadelphia. At that time, he had his first job for the U.S. Census Bureau in the city and his girlfriend, now wife, at the time was still at Kutztown University.
GIS is undoubtedly necessary in the geographic world. West said he's been working with it for a good 15 years and it can set geographers apart in the professional world by giving them a skill set applicable to wherever they work, be it in a consulting position, engineering firm or in the government.
"I tell my students: I'm not here to make you a geographer. Because geography is in everything that we do, you can learn skills that geographers use," he said. "No matter what career path you succeed in, you will ask questions; you will want to know the 'why' and 'where.'"
Finding His Place
Over the years, West kept in contact with his professors and colleages at Kutztown University. He's even given presentations here and there on what geographers do in the real world.
"They were looking for somebody to pick up a class and I fit the description," West said.
One application and a couple interviews later and West was hired to teach one night a week. He calls the course "popular," as it's required for geology majors, marine science majors and environmental science majors.
"The class if full," West said. "Another reason why they hired me is there's a demand for GIS. They can't keep up with the demand at Kutztown. That's a good thing."
Had it not been for Dr. Robert Martin, West may not have found a passion in GIS.
Martin developed the GIS programs at Kutztown University, and now West has taken the reins of teaching a GIS class this semester alongside his mentor.
"He won an award for GIS education. He is modest about it," West said. "I call him one of the fathers of GIS education, especially in Pennsylvania."
West, who has a master's in community and regional planning — a subset of geography — from Temple University, also teaches cultural geography and physical geography one night a week at Montgomery County Community College.
"I'm comfortable being in front of people and teaching a college-level class," he said. "I'm a teacher at heart. I have an uncanny ability to describe things in a very easy, graphical manner. Once you get to the college level, students want to be there. It's not like high school. I take the time for anyone who takes the class to introduce them to geography and get excited."
West didn't need a GIS or a GPS for that matter to know his heart is in the right place.
"I enjoy what I do for my full-time job. I don't know if I want to teach full time. If the opportunity presents itself, I would consider that," he said.
West was applying for a PhD program at the same time he threw his hat in the ring to run for elected office in Lansdale. He put the school on hold to try out politics for the experience.
"If I had to choose between politics and geography? That's a no brainer," he said. "Geography."
Geography, to West, is the now. It's always present. Once it passes, it's, well, history.
"I'm always around learning," he said of his Kutztown academic environment. "If you think you know everything about everything, that's a dangerous place to be. I'm always learning something new or different, a new technique or factoid."
West enjoys taking a new journey, ending up in uncharted, academic territory.
"It's about learning something differently," he said. "Man. I really enjoy that."