Mark Greninger | Profiles from the Geospatial Community

Caitlin Dempsey


Mark Greninger has been the Geographic Information Officer (GIO) for Los Angeles County since 2006.  In this latest Profiles from the Geospatial Community installment, Greninger shares his thoughts about the field of GIS.  

1. What drew you to the field of GIS?

The quick answer is that I needed a job during my junior year at Stanford University! I was connected to a research assistantship that was willing to pay me to develop a geologic and geophysical database of the Alaska and Kamchatka. 

I was given the book Understanding GIS: the Arc/Info method, a login to a UNIX machine in the computer lab, and a set of geologic data from the US Geological Survey.  That is called learning the hard way.

I quickly realized that this technology I was learning matched a life-long passion for maps and geography.  I backpacked with my parents a lot, and the USGS topo quads were critical for getting out of the Sierra backcountry successfully. 

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

My dad spent a lot of time teaching me how to read the maps and their value.  I realized that this new technology I was learning required creativity, discipline, understand, and could do amazing things.

2. What was the path you took in your GIS career?  What are the most important steps you took in your career to position yourself for advancement?

My GIS first job was as a consultant with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in San Francisco.  A developer was building a system that would allow EPA staff to access GIS data using ArcView 3.1, but she left about 6 months after I started. 

I had begun to program Avenue, so I took up the task, and completed the development of the system, along with training programs, adding more data to the system, and helping the EPA use GIS technology effectively.

I started with LA County as a contractor for a group that supported County departments with analysis and technical expertise.  I worked with many departments to help them leverage GIS, and ended up developing another centralized GIS system, and building maps and applications from that system. 

I ended up knowing where all of the GIS data was, so people would call me when they needed information and I could connect them to where it was.

Five years ago, the County created the position of Geographic Information Officer (GIO).  The fact that I knew almost all of the GIS players in the County, had built a GIS sharing infrastructure, and knew how GIS was used across the County, made me a strong candidate to be the first GIO, and fortunately I was hired as the GIO.

I believe that my success has come from the fact that I share as much as I can – both my passion for GIS, but also my expertise and any information that I have at my fingertips.  I give freely and give credit where it is due, which means that people come to me when they need help.

Mark Greninger, GIO for Los Angeles County
Mark Greninger, GIO for Los Angeles County

3.  What are the most important skills that you think new GIS professionals should be developing?  As a manager, what skills and capabilities do you look for in new GIS hires?

Let me flip this around.  As a manager, I look at personality first.  I look for a motivated, creative problem solver who has an attention to detail and a willingness to learn. 

Skills can be taught or learned, but motivation and creativity cannot.  That person will always help our organization, so we try to find them.

In terms of skills, communication is critical.  Communication is a two way street, so it is critical to listen as well as talk. 

GIS is used to support the larger organization – as a GIS professional you need to understand the underlying goal, which is NEVER a map – it is answering a question.  Then answer the question using the most effective tools available.

For more specific skills, beyond GIS software, learn Python, SQL, Excel, Javascript, and a programming language.  The hardest person to find is a WebGIS programmer – someone who knows both GIS concepts and can program an application. 

But remember, specific skill requirements are constantly changing (Avenue and VB are out, Python is now in).  This is a changing world – don’t get wedded to an individual technology

4. How has  the use of GIS has changed within the County of Los Angeles and what it has meant for those working in GIS at the County?

In LA County, GIS is being used more widely, visibly, and more collaboratively.  GIS is no longer in the back room producing maps in a lab – it is used by County staff every day as part of their daily business. 

If something goes wrong you hear about it right away. 

As well, GIS is now part of the County’s outreach to the public, from Assessor mapping sites to road closure sites.  The number of applications and hits on our systems is growing constantly.

We are also collaborating more effectively, both on data maintenance and building GIS tools that are being re-used by all of our departments.  The only way to keep up with the ever-increasing rate of technological change and increased expectations is to collaborate.

One of the biggest changes for County staff is the recent creation of dedicated GIS classifications, which recognize GIS as its own discipline with its own career path.  This will help us recruit, retain, and support the more than 100 people that do GIS in the County.

5.  What are your thoughts about important trends in the field of GIS in the near future?

The first one is mobile – that is fairly obvious, but the County is working hard to provide live data to its workers in the field, and mobile access to the County’s high-quality maps will help the County provide services to its citizens more efficiently and cost effectively.

Secondly, open source software like QGIS and OpenGeo are coming of age, and may cause huge disruptions to the way GIS is done, since they are approaching feature parity with the commercial software from Esri.  The model of yearly software upgrades will eventually break down.

As well, I see definite trends around government collaboration – I call it “authoritative” crowdsourcing.  Most governments fulfill the exact same missions – fixing potholes, managing parks, assessing property – why do we have so many different systems that do the same thing.

6.  Anything else you’d like to add?

I am a big advocate of free GIS data.  The LA County’s GIS Data Portal provides massive amounts of GIS data for free, and in two years has gotten over 250,000 hits. 

I want people to build businesses that add value to our information – we will recoup our costs through the taxes that they pay. 

As an example, making our Solar Map database available freely has supported the recent launch of a new solar initiative, which is expected to create 4,500 jobs and boost our local economy by $500 million. 

We want folks to do GIS, not recreate data.

More Profiles from the Geospatial Community

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.