What’s in it for me! Working on a JISC project the benefits for an undergraduate

Hello, firstly by way of an introduction I’m Felix, one of the researchers helping on this project. As the title suggests I am still a lowly undergraduate at the University having just completed my second year (if you can call mid-September to the end of May a year).

My task in the project is to geo-reference the weekly bomb maps and digitally capture, as point data, each bomb that fell (a somewhat humbling experience given the sheer number of points – 400 in a single week for one map sheet!).

Today I’d like to share a few of the benefits I perceive this project has given me.

Note: These are not ranked according to any particular criterion.

  1. Sense of Purpose – It is nice to know that the work you are doing actually serves some purpose in forming the base for other things and that you are working within something bigger than yourself. By necessity the vast majority of the work you do as an undergraduate (for practicals) is individual and designed to prove you can understand the question asked whilst demonstrating the skills you have been taught (to varying degrees of success). It has little use beyond this, especially given that your work will be one of countless others and once assessed it’ll, in all likelihood, never see the light of day again. Knowing this work will continue to be useful therefore makes doing it more worthwhile.
  2. Improve my skills- Before starting this project the process of geo-referencing was one I could probably have described but not really known how to do. Today I type with an almost intermate familiarity of ArcMap’s geo-referencing tools (to the point I got visibly excited upon discovering the latest version [10.1] includes some new tools!) meaning an exercise initially taking almost two days I can now do in a few hours. Perhaps more importantly I have also become much more confident (after making copious backups!) in experimenting with different tools and processes, especially when something isn’t quite working correctly. This means I’ve gone more “off-script” as it were compared to our carefully constructed practicals that are used in teaching. These self-help skills will no doubt be useful for my dissertation next year and beyond (whatever that happens to be).
  3. …and learn new ones – Whilst geo-referencing is performed using ArcGIS (due to its reporting of error) the point collection uses another package Manifold. Previous to the project I had no experience in using any alternative packages, it was therefore interesting to see the differences (and similarities) between software packages to see what each does best and their subtle differences (such as Arc randomly? switching the direction the scroll wheel moves in). For example adding attributes to a point is several orders of magnitude quicker in Manifold compared to Arc, and how Manifold bundles its project assets (which has advantages and disadvantages). Backups!, file organisation and differences between different mapping providers (from Ordinance Survey’s omission of lighthouses to Open Street Maps obsession with coffee shops) are all new considerations I have had to contend with, not alone, but it  nevertheless gives very useful insights into the day to day concerns in this type of task and in committing to a process on a much bigger dataset than I have previously worked on. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener, for me, was simply how it takes so long to get things done (including this blog post!) such as finding where Painters Lane meets Magpie Way in both a historic map and a contemporary map, I am learning to manage my time.
  4. A shift in approach – This may only apply to me given my work history but in addition to this project I am employed by the University’s Information Services (IS) department as part of their front line support for students (ranging from I’ve forgotten my password to I think I just deleted the only copy of my dissertation). Whilst in both of these jobs I sit behind a desk with a laptop, with IS I was purely reactionary  – a student has a problem, comes to be desk and I help them. In the intervening time I do my coursework. With this JISC Project I have a large task that I have to manage getting done over a period of days and weeks. Therefore I have had to train myself to work consistently with attention to detail, not to go flat out at the beginning of the week or else I’ll have no energy, will power  or attention by the end . In other words it’s a long jog not a short sprint.
  5. Finally this job is nicely compensated, which I won’t lie is great. Ideally future employers will find my experience and involvement in this project more than a noteworthy bullet point on my CV too!

So that’s what I’ve found so far, I’ll finish by saying if there’s anyone else that is offered the same opportunity definitely go for it!

Felix 🙂

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