By Jack Kelly
Ned English grew up in suburban Boston and, like many freshman when he first arrived at college, was unsure of his major and future career. Almost poetically, he ended up “falling into doing geography” as an undergraduate student at McGill University.
At McGill, English had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for a professor who studied soil and its effect on climate change. It was his interest in this topic, and in applied, physical geography and environmental geography that led him to pursue his M.S. in geography.
After applying to several schools, English picked the University of Wisconsin–Madison, his top choice. A decision that he made, in part, because of his desire to work with Dr. A-Xing Zhu, a member of UW–Madison’s Department of Geography. Zhu researches geographic information systems (GIS) and their application to environmental modelling. English describes his time working with Zhu as “demanding,” but rewarding.
English also believes that the sense of community within the geography program here attributed to his positive experience at the university.
“The community was amazing – lots of great people. The program was excellent, super intense, but it was important for me in that I got the right experience working in a lab doing, essentially, applied soil landscape modeling using geographic information systems.”
Upon completion of his M.S. in 2001, English took a position working with Empower Geographics, a small firm in Chicago that does GIS consulting. English did applied marketing research for other companies during his time at the firm, taking on projects that ranged from the efficient delivery of spring water to the telecommunications field.
English believes his time at Empower Geographics taught him how to approach GIS consulting in a holistic manner—lessons he still finds valuable today.
“Being so small (a company) you did everything,” English explained. “You dealt directly with clients, figured out what they needed, did the project and then delivered the project and provided customer support. That was a really great first job.”
After a year at Empower Geographics, English took a position with NORC at the University of Chicago. NORC is an independent research institution that delivers reliable data and analysis for business and policy decisions.
English is now a senior research methodologist for the NORC, and is responsible for the center’s GIS. Over the last 15 years he has assembled a team that now consists of five other members, and has done work on countless topics.
Presently, English and his team are collaborating with a client to try and measure the impact of anti-smoking advertising on tobacco use and health outcomes, among other projects. He believes this to be an incredibly important topic, but explained that measuring such an effect depends on numerous variables besides the advertising itself.
English cites projects like these as the source of passion he shows for his work. He explained that he loves to solve problems — especially when he is working with his team.
“I like the problem-solving aspect. I have to think creatively about what information I need in order to get my head around [a problem], and solve the issue,” English explained. “But also, the good thing about social science is that it’s quantitative, there’s actual numbers involved. But also you can see the direct application. It’s not just theoretical.”