Women in Tech Series: Using geospatial tools for data-driven decision-making

UNDP People for 2030
4 min readMar 7, 2023

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The Women in Tech series puts the spotlight on women who are championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital innovations across UNDP. By sharing these inspiring individual stories, we hope to encourage others to choose this path and spur gender equality in the digital sector.

Sydney Neeley, UNDP Geographic Information System (GIS) Analyst

We rely on geospatial technology daily, from accessing real-time maps to checking the weather forecast on our smartphones. How can geospatial technology enable organizations like UNDP to make data-driven decisions?

For this edition of Women in Tech, we spoke to Geographic Information System (GIS) Analyst, Sydney Neeley, who has a key role in leveraging GIS technology to support the UN’s programmatic goals.

As part of UNDP’s GIS team, Sydney is passionate about using geospatial analysis and satellite imagery to address climate change, global health issues, strengthen environmental protection, and monitor long-term changes in the environment and society. In our interview, she addressed what it is like to work in a male-dominated industry where women represent just 33 per cent of GIS workforce globally (Mackenzie 2022).

Having completed an undergraduate degree in International Relations in 2013 at the University of Denver and a Master’s degree from Duke Global Health Institute in 2016, Sydney’s story illustrates how women with limited formal technical training can break into the tech industry.

“It was clear that I wanted to stay in international development, but I wanted to take a more technical approach. So, during my graduate degree, I completed the geospatial analysis training program where I gained expertise in GIS and Remote Sensing,” Sydney explained.

Sydney Neeley presenting at the ECOSOC Chamber at the UN HQ as part of a panel discussion on space technologies for development

After an internship at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Sydney took her skills to Guatemala. There, she spent a year monitoring and collecting data on mosquito breeding sites and agricultural practices related to Malaria in Guatemala’s southern region, as part of a project with Universidad del Valle. On her return in 2017, she landed her first technical role at one of NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) archive centers where she learned about satellite imagery and technical data management. Despite being a valuable opportunity, she expressed: “I knew I could utilize my skills and knowledge in a more meaningful way.”

Staying true to her passion for development, global health and GIS, Sydney joined UNDP as a GIS Specialist in 2018. A position that perfectly integrated all her previous experience, knowledge, and interests.

“As a GIS Analyst, my role involves analyzing and visualizing data to support solving complex challenges occurring across the world. By employing various techniques, including maps, graphs, charts, dashboards, or spreadsheets, I examine data using consistent decision-making and problem-solving processes to develop tailored solutions,” she explains. Furthermore, she emphasized the importance of considering the spatial aspects of the problem, including local environmental, political, and social characteristics.

Another critical part of Sydney’s role is providing online training and hands-on tutorials to UNDP employees and external partners to demonstrate the benefits of GIS.

“I enjoy being able to contribute with my technical expertise to UNDP projects. In UNDP’s pursuit to address global challenges, geospatial information is indispensable, which is why GIS tools will remain relevant in doing so,” she adds.

Sydney Neeley working on an ArcGIS dashboard for waste management project in Panama

Like much of the IT industry, there is a disproportionate number of men compared to women in the GIS sector. Sydney believes the secret to success lies in a constant desire to learn and grow.

As one of the three GIS specialists in the GIS team and the only woman, “I want to encourage other women entering the tech industry, specifically the GIS field, to believe in yourself and build supportive working relationships at every stage of your career. The GIS field is a small world, and you are likely to interact with many of the same people throughout your career path. So, find those genuinely interested in your professional growth and willing to support it.”

Reference:

  1. ​​​​​​​Mackenzie Mills, Women in GIS and Technology Industries, March 2022. https://www.bluemarblegeo.com/women-in-gis-and-technology-industries/

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