Planning for a major transportation project involves compiling not only geographical factors, like streams and wetlands, but also environmental and cultural data, like wildlife and historic preservation. That’s a lot of data to analyze — and that’s where Bridget Ward, ’11, comes in.

Ward is a GIS (geographic information system) analyst and environmental planner at HDR, Inc., an architectural, engineering, and consulting firm. Working out of HDR’s Richmond office, the bulk of Ward’s work is focused on a proposed high-speed rail project between Richmond and Washington, DC2RVA. She creates maps of the rail corridor using state and countywide data along with information her team has collected, conducts economic and environmental analysis to determine the impact it would all have on the study area, then makes recommendations. They are working toward having the final design plan approved by 2017.

“I can see the difference I’m making when I’m doing it,” Ward said. “It’s really great to interact with the public this way. It’s cool to see my work out there like that.”

GIS is a computer-based tool used to map and analyze features and events, combining the power of a database with the visualization capabilities offered by maps. People around the world use GIS to address issues such as environmental protection, pollution, health care, land use, conservation, education, and more. The DC2RVA website has a library of 63 detailed maps of the entire corridor, all of which Ward created. The project is part of a larger nationwide higher speed rail plan identified by the U.S. Department of Transportation; the Washington to Richmond segment would link the northeast and southeast high-speed rail corridors.

“We need it,” Ward said. “This rail line needs to happen at some point.”

Part of the project also involves assembling a property owner database, with parcel information and mailing addresses for all of the property within the 12 counties the project goes through. HDR notifies anyone within a certain area of the corridor of its fieldwork, such as flyover aerial imaging and ground surveys to collect environmental, archeological and architectural data. Sometimes property owners refuse to allow fieldwork and the teams adjust to collect the information they need. All of that information ultimately comes into Ward’s GIS work as data she can share in a map.

But before Ward came to Richmond and graduated with a degree in environmental studies and a minor in geography, she didn’t know what GIS was. Her sophomore year, her advisor recommended she take a class with the Department of Geography and the Environment’s Kimberley Klinker, geography professor and director of the Spatial Analysis Lab. That’s where Ward got her hands dirty, learning that she could apply mapping to everything.

“I think Bridget really likes the problem-solving and creative aspects of GIS,” Klinker said. “I learned a lot from my experience with Bridget — a student with passion who is willing to work is often more of an asset than a so-called ‘gifted’ student for whom things come easy.”

The Spatial Analysis Lab uses GIS, GPS and remote sensing software with an extensive map collection and library of digital data so students can research and explore different projects. Klinker said she teaches her students about GIS by focusing on the data — to understand the “why” — before teaching the software itself. As one of Klinker’s students, Ward helped create accessibility maps for people with disabilities and quickly saw the implications her work could have on the world around her.

“Professor Klinker really developed my interest for GIS and mapping,” Ward said. “She’d create a project and it was really hands-on, exploring and teaching ourselves in a way. The only way to learn technology for yourself is to try it out. Anything — from a new computer program to a new app on your phone — you have to explore it and get comfortable with it, and she really instilled that in me.”