A chat with in-house remote sensing expert: Katie Tyler

How Katie fell into the worlds of GIS and geography

Upstream Tech is composed of pretty sweet individuals from a diverse set of professional backgrounds. With a range of experts on our team, we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: we’re a nerdy bunch! We each have lots of interests, multitudes, and hats that we wear daily.

As such, on occasion we’ll be highlighting our internal team members, showcasing how they got into their work and shed a little light on how someone (maybe you!) might get into these different fields. After all, though our mission is to create access to environmental data, we hope that this also means more people will join in on this work to tackle the problems of our generation and the next.

Today’s spotlight: Katie Tyler (she/her). Katie is our Remote Sensing Senior Associate at Upstream Tech. Basically: she’s one of our resident GIS experts.

Katie Tyler team trading card and stats.
Jun 29, 2023
Table of contents

Into the world of geography

Like everyone as an undergrad, Katie obviously had it all figured out from the very beginning.

At least – this is how we’d like to think our experience and life will unfold: choose a major, and the rest will follow. Well, for Katie, it took a few other experiences in the environmental field before she found her way (figuratively speaking of course).

Geography, and the field of <span class="term" data-def="Geographic information systems are computer-based tools used to store, visualize, analyze, and interpret geographic data. It comprises an entire field of study with applications across many industries that use geospatial data">geographic information systems</span> (GIS) writ-large, seem like intimidating spaces to get into. Both fields require a certain technical background and expertise, with scopes of study that might not necessarily be clear to everyone. What even is geography? We all know geography from middle school: globes, locations of countries, a capital or two – the basics. Or, that’s what we think. 

As Katie reminded us, <span class="term" data-def="Geography is a field of science devoted to the study of the lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of Earth. The first recorded use of the word γεωγραφία was as a title of a book by Greek scholar Eratosthenes. Source: Wikipedia">geography</span> is quite the all-encompassing field. It takes on everything from technical geography like GIS, to how humans form identities and cultures in relation to the world like cultural geography, to the study of how land has changed over great spans of time, like palaeogeography (whoa).

For Katie though, geography wasn’t near her purview during undergrad. In fact, she didn’t take any GIS courses at all.

A classic National Park Service employee photo. Photo courtesy of Katie Tyler

At Mount Holyoke, a gender diverse women’s college, Katie studied environmental studies. After attending the NYC Climate March one year, she began to form strong environmental values that aligned with issues of social justice. She returned and pursued environmental clubs that focused on issues like zero waste and upon graduating, Katie sought out work that was similarly deeply rooted in environmental work that addressed meaningful impact. This eventually led her to work for the National Park Service and later for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 

On any given day at Rocky Mountain National Park, Katie would take the East Inlet Trail to one of her favorite views in the whole world. The short hike led to a spot where the river meandered and split into two paths just before crashing powerfully into the pool of water below. The waterfall alone was a sight to see. But if a curious hiker went just a little further, the trail opened up into a clearing, featuring a stunning view of Mount Craig, or Baldy as it i's lovingly nicknamed, in the distance. On lucky days, she’d even spot a moose or two along the trail. Moments like these were influential for her: she wanted to do challenging work that helped protect these spaces.

The more time Katie spent in the field, the more she heard about other potential career opportunities that addressed environmental issues. At WWF, GIS came into sharper focus. Fundamentally, GIS is a way to analyze data about the planet using technical hardware, and eventually present compiled information in a visually creative way that can speak to issues at hand. This coupling intrigued Katie. GIS seemed like a medium where she could push for meaningful, creative work, all while taking on a highly analytical skill – and challenge – within the environmental field. 

Katie’s curiosity was piqued.

Some grad applications and a couple years later, Katie went on to receive her Master’s in Geography with a concentration in GIS from CU Boulder. No big deal.

Potential for GIS, Katie, and the planet

View of Mount Craig from the East Inlet Trail. Photo courtesy of Katie Tyler.

<span class="term" data-def="Fundamentally, it is a way to scan the earth from above. Often remote sensing refers to satellite-based data collection – but this can be any type of data that is not collected by in-person monitoring (i.e. drones, aerial flights, LiDAR, etc)">Remote sensing</span> and GIS are a part of our daily lives. If you’ve ever used Google Earth to poke around the planet, then you’ve taken part in remote sensing. <span class="term" data-img-url="https://media.giphy.com/media/RH8O0Nyi8wHOMRC53T/giphy.gif">Congrats!</span> Where it got exciting for Katie, though, is in the data – particularly data visualization. 

“I got really passionate about how GIS could more easily communicate issues around the environmental field. The format is so easy to understand: information laid over the map of an area. It’s an impactful way to illustrate an issue, or several!”

Throughout her master’s program and after graduating, Katie’s original aspiration of creating impactful change remained as strong as ever. After all, what got Katie interested in GIS in the first place was the opportunity for the work to scale. Geography, ultimately, is a field concerned with scale, time, space, and, of course, place.

For Katie, the opportunity to work on behalf of the environment at a wide spectrum of scale, from highly localized levels to the national or even global level, was thrilling. On the smaller side, the data saves organizations time, facilitates data gathering for justice-led work, and better communicates issues at a localized level. At the other end of the scale, there are far-reaching country and global climate goals that need tracking, data for areas of improvement, and verification of progress.

Katie would be lost without GIS

GIS demystified, the field is inherently exciting stuff: we’re taking – and talking – images of the planet. This imagery contains data about all of the above: it’s an image of a specific time, and how that place, in all of its complexities, was existing at that time. Wild!

One such example dataset? Katie kindly reminded us that part of how we measure global warming comes through global land temperature data, or earth observation (EO) data. This data is acquired in part via satellites, and other tools such as weather balloons, radars, and even people. People like Katie, who <span class="term" data-def="A little sarcasm aside, an important cohort of volunteers who gather data about the weather do really exist! For more information on how to get involved, please visit www.weather.gov/pdt/volunteer" data-img-url="https://media.giphy.com/media/pcMx5eoz7HXrArTXW0/giphy-downsized-large.gif">care.</span>

More data more problems (that can be solved)

Looking ahead, Katie’s excited for the potential that new (and better) satellites might bring to the field. 

“When satellites capture that imagery, they’re capturing different bands. Those bands can come together to create indexes, which can give us info for analysis. There’s also the workflow of analyzing a certain area overtime and looking for changes. We already have key indices in Lens like the <span class="term" data-def="A widely-used metric for quantifying the health and density of vegetation using sensor data">Normalized Difference Vegetation Index</span> (NDVI) that come from satellites, in this case providing information on vegetation health and density. 

“The more satellites we have, and the better they are, the better data we might derive from them. That’s exciting.”

To Katie, these fields have a lot of potential. As for the industry and Upstream Tech, she’s excited about how remote sensing and EO data can assist in creating much needed transparency around carbon removal and credits, specifically monitoring (measuring), reporting, and verification (MRV). 

Although these different fields can seem overwhelming at first, there is such a breadth to the work that even some degree of GIS work or familiarity can go a long way. Katie’s take: anyone interested in this work should pursue it. Ask yourself what you might want to show or help solve and from there, work backward. 

At the end of our chat, Katie recalled how at CU, she found a professor who was a key inspiration for Katie getting into the field. One reason? Well, she built the GIS program – i.e. the curriculum Katie studied at CU – for around 25 years before retiring. That professor eventually went on to become Katie's advisor, and throughout her degree encouraged her questions, ideas, and prompted Katie to dig deeper with her studies. In short, she made Katie feel welcomed, and made entering this new space significantly less intimidating. When she thinks back, her advisor’s guidance explains why Katie found a home in GIS quickly, and why she’s still so passionate about getting more people into the field today.

Zooming out, this is where Katie remains most optimistic: how people will expand the applicability and range of GIS to solve the issues of our times.

Landsat Surface Reflectance (left) and the SR-derived Landsat Surface Reflectance Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) (right). Public domain.

Learn from Katie

Thanks for tuning in for our chat with Katie Tyler. Interested in learning more about remote sensing and GIS? Well you’re in luck! Katie also created our most recent educational series on exactly that. Check out her posts below.

We’ll be featuring more interviews with leaders, both internally and externally, in the coming year so please stay tuned. Subscribe to our newsletter here.

Thanks to Katie Tyler for sharing her story with us, and thanks to helpful interview partner Alexis Clemons.