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Black History Month: A Leader in the Use of Satellite Imagery in Assisting with Natural Disasters and Ensuring an Accurate Population Count

By Paul Watson, Team Lead, Geospatial Reference Data Branch, U.S. Census Bureau

I was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in Prince George's County, Maryland. My family is from Jamaica, and always placed a strong emphasis on professionalism and passion. Many of my family members worked in architecture, construction, and engineering jobs that helped shape the earth beneath our feet. Their commitment to land use triggered my own interest in geography—and my decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in geography at the University of Maryland, College Park.  It is there that I took classes that solidified my interest in how we interact with the world around us.

I joined the U.S. Census Bureau 12 years ago – and currently serve as a supervisory geographer in the Geography Division in the Geospatial Reference Data Branch. The Census Bureau plays a key role in ensuring an accurate population count and portrait, providing a detailed look at who we are and where we're headed as a country – as well as arming communities with data needed to determine where to build schools, hospitals, roads and bridges, and businesses where to locate stores and factories.

My role at Census involves utilizing remote sensing technologies like satellite and aerial imagery, as well as coordinating inter-agency user groups such as the Commerce Imagery Users’ Group, which focuses on the access, use, and implementation of satellite and aerial imagery across the Department. My team acquires, processes, and distributes the imagery into services for various Census Bureau programs that use applications to update the Master Address File/Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (MAF/TIGER) system. The Master Address File (MAF) is a Census Bureau file that contains an accurate, up to date inventory of all known living quarters or addresses in the United States, Puerto Rico and associated island areas. TIGER represents the Census Bureau’s geographic spatial data, such as legal boundaries. This imagery serves as a backdrop so users can accurately visualize road, address, and topographical features they’re updating. The imagery also helps us detect geographical changes between decennial censuses, leading to more accurate population counts.

Imagery also plays a significant role in helping identify housing structures, particularly in cases of natural disasters, which over the long-term disproportionately impact communities of color. My team supports ad hoc projects relating to natural disasters, coordinating with other Census Bureau programs and federal agencies—such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration—to provide available data about affected populations. Imagery also is critical in the Census Bureau’s public data tool, OnTheMap for Emergency Management, which allows users to retrieve reports containing detailed workforce, population, and housing characteristics for hurricanes, floods, wildfires, winter storms, and federal disaster declaration areas.

The best part of my job is the opportunity to lead, mentor, and learn from my colleagues. Being able to share my experiences and perspectives and those of others has contributed to my own professional and personal growth and given me a greater appreciation of the importance of being part of a diverse and inclusive workforce. I believe it’s important for people with similar backgrounds to see someone they can relate to in leadership and management positions.   

The Census Bureau's continuous drive for diversity and inclusion and its commitment to count the nation's historically underrepresented populations is a big part of why I am here. I’m proud I took an interest in geography – a field not emphasized in the African American community or many schools when I was growing up – and pursued a career that allows me to build upon that interest at a place with a mission and culture that is equitable and accessible.

Black History Month is invaluable to me. It is an opportunity to teach, learn, explore, and acknowledge a rich, underappreciated, and misrepresented history. It is also an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of past and present African Americans, while motivating and encouraging future generations. Black History Month is a strong reminder that despite challenges still faced in this country, Black Americans deserve equality, visibility, and to be proud of their past, present and future accomplishments.

This blog post is part of a series showcasing the diverse African American leaders from across the U.S. Department of Commerce in honor of Black History Month. 

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