GIS senior helps design, update most-viewed-ever war ‘Story Map’

Sep 7, 2022 | Applied and Natural Sciences, Faculty/Staff, General News, Liberal Arts, Students

During his recent internship with the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Institute for the Study of War, Louisiana Tech senior Geographic Information Science (GIS) major Thomas Bergeron helped both design and add daily data to the map of record of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The constantly updated “Story Map” of the conflict is the most downloaded and viewed of all-time on the website of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the global market leader in GIS software, location intelligence, and mapping since 1969.

Bergeron, a West Feliciana High graduate from St. Francisville, has seen his work showcased both on national television and at the 2022 National Geospatial Symposium. The map has also been used by the United Nations to conduct refugee operations.

Early in the conflict, a Reuters photograph captured the image of Ukrainian minister Oleksiy Chernyshov using an ISW map (with Bergeron’s name on it) to brief the leaders of France, Germany, and Italy during a visit to Ukraine.

Bergeron’s internship ran through May, and he worked remotely out of Ruston. He maintained his time as a full-time student, student worker for Athletics Creative and Video Services, and active member and Public Relations Chairman of Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

Yet Bergeron found himself in the middle of the conflict.

“While organizationally I was not attached to any specific team, my work pre-war was focused heavily on the Russian buildup in Belarus,” he said. “But on Feb. 23, Russia invaded, much to the world’s surprise. Since Feb. 24, I was a part of making what is considered to be the premier mapping products of the Ukraine Conflict.

“I am honored truly to have been involved in an event that many people wish they could help in, and I am proud to say that I have accomplished my goal: to serve people the best I can in the best ways I know how.”

Although Bergeron’s and his team’s work was showcased on all U.S. major networks, and although he’s participated in other ISW research involving the Russian military and helped set up the ISW’s soon-to-be-established Geospatial Intelligence group, the “highest point” of his internship, he said, was his learning “about how my work was confirmed to have saved the lives of at least one Ukrainian family.”

Midway through his internship, Bergeron learned through a briefing with his ISW analyst that “our work had been used by many external partners with really big names,” Bergeron said. “But the thing that stood out to me is my work was shared with an activist in Ukraine who was coordinating evacuations from the country. That activist (at the time) confirmed at least one family has escaped to Romania, and hearing that made me realize my purpose and why I was doing what I was doing.”

For the challenge, Bergeron said he “most definitely felt prepared” by Tech’s GIS program.

“Both of my professors, Dr. (Michael) Crosby and Dr. (Irene) Casas, have stimulated my interest in topics that interest me while also offering me a plethora of knowledge of other disciplines that help keep me sharp,” he said. “I believe the GIS program at Louisiana Tech has limitless potential and is only stunted by the lack of resources and general lack of awareness of the GIS program.”

Both Crosby and Casas wish more people knew about Tech’s GIS program because the careers it trains graduates for, Crosby said, “are as varied as the students.”

“If you want a job, there are plenty out there,” Crosby, assistant professor in Tech’s Department of Agricultural Sciences and Forestry, said. “All our graduates this year, for example, are already employed – ‘graduate Saturday, go to work Monday’ type thing. And I have lost count of the organizations that have contacted us with an open position. We don’t have people to send them. Irene has kept up with many graduates and has tracked down others and is building a network to communicate these positions to them.

“I also wish people understood that we are more than just map makers,” he said. “There are a lot of possibilities in this arena – modeling/big data analytics, database development and management (this is really important in places that deal with large amounts of data and pairs well with IT), defense applications, transportation (network analysis), app development, programming, web mapping.

“Think recently of all the COVID maps – that took data reporting from multiple agencies,” he said. “Someone collected/collated the data, performed analysis, created map products and provided dashboards online that showed near real-time numbers at multiple scales. A lot goes into that. These folks aren’t dragging clip-art images over pre-made outlines.”

Like Crosby, Casas, who is a professor in the School of History and Social Sciences, said the thing she most wants people to know is that “We exist!” she said, “and we do a lot of cool stuff.”

“One of the most important things to highlight about our program is that our students are being placed in good jobs right away,” she said. “This means there is a high demand for GIS graduates, and hopefully this will translate into more resources for the program and more students becoming interested in the program.

“We’ve had success in training our students at a level that allows them to be highly competitive in the workforce,” she said. ‘We have students all throughout the state and beyond. Both Michael and I just wish we had more resources, because we’re not short on ideas. We’re proud of Thomas and all of our students, and we’ll continue to encourage and train them the best way possible.”

One of approximately 25 students currently in Tech’s GIS program, Bergeron will earn his undergrad degree during Fall Quarter and then decide his next steps, which he hopes will include pursuit of a PhD in National Security, something he got an unexpected taste of in the spring.

“During my ‘90 days of war,’ I will never say that I had an easy time,” Bergeron said, “but I think it was well worth the sweat and tears to try to save the world one point, line, and polygon at a time.”