When CBS first aired The District in 2000, it was the first time a prime-time television series incorporated a geographic information system (GIS) as a key part of the story with a GIS/crime analyst (Lynne Thigpen). John Calkins, corporate technical evangelist for Esri, helped bring GIS to life in The District, and he continues to assist Hollywood as a volunteer consultant for The Exchange. Throughout the years his work at Esri has focused on natural resources (for example, forestry, petroleum), government, defense, intelligence, and science solutions. He even established GIS in Antarctica at McMurdo station!
Tell us about your background. Were you interested in science as a kid?
Growing up as a kid, you often don’t really know which direction you are headed. School is something you go to because you are supposed to. You take the courses they tell you and make the most of it. Going to high school in Williamsville, New York (a suburb of Buffalo), most people dream about escaping Buffalo and heading out into the world to do something; anything, except stay in Buffalo. So during high school I looked at the things I liked the most and those were math, earth sciences, and physics. How could I use those to find a successful path into the future? The best answer at the time indicated going to college for an engineering degree. I looked at two choices: mechanical engineering and geologic engineering. It was the geological engineering option of math, engineering, physics, and earth sciences that led me to the Colorado School of Mines and the beginning of a journey into science, geology, engineering, and ultimately, geography.
What moment early on in your career stands out as a turning point?
Probably the most significant moment was working in a local grocery store unloading trucks during high school. During this time, I learned that if you worked hard (really hard), then your efforts will always be rewarded. Organizations reward and take care of those employees that give their best. This was an incredibly valuable lesson because it meant that no matter what you attempt, if you do your best that is what matters the most.
Did any movies or television shows influence your decision to become a scientist? Which ones and which were your favorites?
Unfortunately answering this question will immediately date me. I strongly believe that television and movies are incredibly powerful media because they provide us with the role models and plant the seeds of what we will ultimately become. For me, Star Trek defined the dreams to go out and explore the world combined with a good dose of technology. Then add in Star Wars where every kid can become a hero and escape the world they were trapped in. So it is clear, I grew up in a world of science fiction. However, to be honest, the most powerful movie was a 1949 black and white movie with Gregory Peck, called Twelve O’Clock High—a movie with stunning visuals, symbolism, and a story about being part of a team working together.
You consulted on the CBS television show The District, which was the first ever prime-time television series utilizing GIS. How has the technology changed since then?
When CBS first aired The District in 2000, it was the first time a prime-time television series had incorporated a geographic information system as a key part of the story with a GIS/crime analyst (Lynne Thigpen). This became a role model for millions of analysts in the real world who then had a way to explain to their friends and families what GIS was all about. Now, more than 10 years later, the technology continues to evolve with new cloud computing capabilities, more mobile devices, but the principles of scientific analysis really remain unchanged. The techniques and approaches used for geographic analysis may find new tools and approaches, but the science of space and time has not changed—only the increasing applications of that capability. Because the technology is now more available to everyone, the benefits are growing exponentially. Everyone is becoming more spatially literate and aware of their surroundings, and what they can do to create a more sustainable world.
Working with Esri for more than 20 years, we often find new and innovative approaches to share geographic knowledge with the world. In December 2010, we had the opportunity to participate with The Exchange in a “salon” to discuss geographic information analysis with a series of Hollywood producers and writers. The salon was the beginning of a partnership that continues to grow and foster new ideas to this day. However, the most amazing moment occurred after the first salon when we realized this was an incredible experience—to spend a Friday evening talking to a group of creative, interested people that just wanted to learn new ideas. In the corporate world, we often spend our time selling ideas in board rooms or traveling the world; but this was a Friday evening, in someone’s home, where we could just learn from each other. In all the meetings and presentations I have done, nothing will ever be as powerful a moment as that night.
We know that television and film benefit from science advising, but what advantages are there for the scientists?
The interaction with different communities can cause us to think differently and open our minds to new possibilities. Any chance to learn what others are doing and share ideas is what forms the beginning of new ideas. There are other real tangible benefits as well. For example, educating the next generation and getting young students interested in science helps to grow and promote the industry and scientific advances still to come.
What advice would you give young adults looking at career options, GIS or otherwise?
When I attended college I did not know anything about a geographic information system (GIS). I was young and did not care. I wanted to go out and make a difference in the world (and make sure I could make enough money to survive). However, what I learned through time is that there are two powerful skills you need: (1) the ability to process and analyze data (my engineering degree) and (2) the ability to communicate and tell your story. Because most of the data in the world has a geographic component, you will inevitably find that a geographic information system will unlock the value and meaning in data. GIS is a tool just like all the other information processing tools you use in your daily life. The second point about “telling your story” is something that many students overlook. You need to be able to get your message, your ideas, and your passion communicated to others. Your whole life is about a journey and working with others, so you need to be able to communicate your stories every day. When you look at the goals of The Exchange, they reflect these real-world experiences: to combine the power of science with great storytelling, because that is what can change the world for the better.
Is there a storyline you would like to see in a television show or movie that involves an aspect of your field – or science in general – that has not yet been covered?
The challenge with television is often the audience’s attention span. Everything must happen quickly – in 42 minutes. So what has not been covered yet is the depth of geographic information science. How so many things in our world today are controlled by our geography. So yes, there are many storylines yet to tell. It may be about the secret work of intelligence analysts protecting our country’s national security from foreign threats or it may be about the firefighter hero who jumps out of an airplane to fight a forest fire—all armed with the best geographic knowledge.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
The more we can share our individual messages and stories, the more society can come together for a better future with understanding. As we struggle with many global challenges, television and film can give us hope; science can find the answers, and when the two are combined together, the possibilities grow exponentially.