Emma Burge

Emma Burge, EPA GIS Analyst in front of valve at Zealandia

Emma Burge, GIS Analyst, standing in front of the Valve Tower, Zealandia ecosanctuary

Making connections across geographic boundaries is part of who I am. In breaks between study and work, I once spent four months as a women’s education and health coordinator in Nepal, and three months in Lebanon, teaching English and maths to Syrian refugees.

Making connections is at the heart of mapmaking, which is now my career focus. I’m the EPA’s resident map nerd, and have now qualified with a Postgrad Diploma with Merit, in Geospatial Science.

“The EPA is a dream place to work for me and I care deeply about the environment.

I have been working for more than six months on creating an EPA master map, a central place where staff can create a perspective that is meaningful to their work area. The artistic challenge for the GIS curator is to gather, manage, analyse, and present the right spatial data using mapping specific software. To construct our EPA master map, I have integrated more than 150 datasets from 15 different organisations into a single database that can be visualised as one map – our map.

Our 150-plus layers of data can’t all be displayed simultaneously, of course, so the GIS curator has to make informed choices about how the data we decide to include or exclude will influence viewers’ interpretation of the topic. For instance, if someone wants a map of all forestry land, should we include rivers on it? If someone else is interested in the location of drilling permits in the Great South Basin, should we include marine classification data? Every choice we make about what data we include manipulates the final story that the map will tell.

“I consulted with many EPA teams about what data they wanted to see displayed. The list includes the location of landfills, river catchments, Māori land, marine environmental classes, soil types, historical land use, topography, farmland, forestry, conservation areas, and hundreds more.

It means that if there is a spillage of a dangerous chemical at a particular site we can use our data to calculate the environmental risk to a particular waterway by assessing the nature of the soil, the degree of slope from the spill site to the waterway, the distance, and so the likely degree and rate of spread. Until recently, all that information needed to be collated and calculated manually whereas now we can do it with the assistance of a sophisticated GIS tool.