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Pamela in Pakistan: Adventures of a Canadian GIS Professional Abroad

GoGeomatics member Pamela Williams is currently on assignment in Pakistan working with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  We recently had the opportunity to learn about her GIS experiences overseas.  Pamela will be sharing her GIS experience in a 3 part series.  Stay tuned for more from Pamela in Pakistan!

Part 1: The grass is always greener…

Have you ever sat behind your computer feeling like there must be more to life than completing another GIS task? I certainly have, especially since listening to the stories told by a good friend who was posted overseas with CANADEM to provide GIS services in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Haiti.

I have never followed a standard career path. After graduating with a BSc in Physical Geography from the University of Victoria,  I took jobs that I found interesting. I did not have a desire to climb the corporate ladder.  From the mid 1990’s, up until 2003 I worked for Madrone Environmental Services Ltd,  a small consulting firm based in Duncan, British Columbia.  The firm provided ecosystem and slope stability mapping services. Working at Madrone Environmental Services, I was able to develop my geomatics skills to prepare me for my next assignment.

In 2004, I became the GIS technician/analyst/project manager at Cowichan Tribes, the largest First Nation in British Columbia. During my time there,  I created a geodatabase and atlas of the sewer and water lines on the reserve. What I learned from this position is that I  love working in a cross-cultural environment.  With the infrastructure mapping project complete and the funding at an end I decided to go back to school for an advanced GIS certificate and chose Algonquin College in Ottawa.   After graduating in August 2010, I completed several short term GIS contracts.

A major turning point in my life came on  Sept. 27, 2011 when I attended an information session organized by GoGeomatics at CANADEM’s office in Ottawa. I was already on CANADEM’s roster having registered earlier in the year.  CANADEM offers short term employment overseas.  I left the information session excited at the prospect of going overseas with CANADEM. Three days later I received an e-mail informing me of a three month position in Pakistan with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Was I interested?  Absolutely was my reply!  CANADEM required an updated resume. I wasn’t confident that my existing resume highlighted my GIS skills well enough so I met with Jonathan of GoGeomatics on October 1, 2011.. Unlike regular job coaches, he understood my previous GIS experience and helped me to identify and promote my GIS skills. Proof of a good coaching session, CANADEM called me on Oct. 5 to say I was the successful candidate.

The next two weeks are a bit of a blur and were spent getting vaccinations up to date, filling out the necessary paperwork and completing the required security training on-line. Between the security training, the Government of Canada’s travel advisory for Pakistan and some Internet research, lots of doubts and fears began to creep in.

My angst started to leave me as I boarded the 13 hour flight from Toronto direct to Islamabad aboard Pakistan International Airline. The plane was full to capacity with families travelling back to Pakistan. Seeing the children and the great love and affection given them by their parents my concerns melted away.  Upon my arrival, a United Nations driver picked me up and whisked me away to a guest house.  Something like a small hotel with about 25 rooms but with a high fence and security guards posted out front. After a brief rest I was out to dinner. My first meal in-country was at a Korean restaurant with my supervisor who is from Nepal with another co-worker from Indonesia. Talk about United Nations!

I am located in Islamabad, which I have been told by many is not like the rest of Pakistan. It is a planned city and was constructed in the 1960’s using a grid system. As the capital of the country, it likely benefits from extra government funding. Foreigners are not uncommon and the parts I have seen so far are fairly affluent.

Outside of work, men dominate the landscape here. Rarely have I seen a woman or group of women walking in the streets while it is common to see men. All the staff I have seen at my guest house are men and the few shops I have been in have been staffed solely by men. At work it is different. I estimate that nearly half the staff are women.

Dressing in a culturally appropriate way in this conservative Islamic society has helped to ease my transition into life here in Pakistan and has allowed me to focus on the GIS work at hand. Before I left Canada I was able to borrow several shalwar kameez, the traditional dress here in Pakistan and have purchased a couple more since I arrived.  A shalwar kameez is a loose fitting pant and a long tunic type top, with a modest neckline.  They are often worn with a matching scarf called a dupatta. Not only does dressing like a local seem to make a favourable impression with people, it also helps to keep me cool when the temperature rises to 30C!

To get to and from work, I am driven in a UN car. The trip is a bit of an adventure. People (or perhaps just my driver) drive fast, don’t necessarily stay in the lanes marked on the road and drive on the opposite side of the road to what I am used to.  Drivers seem to communicate their next move by beeping their horns.  At different spots throughout the city traffic slows as three lanes are pinched down to one as we pass through a police check point created by concrete blocks.

If you are contemplating offering your GIS skills to the humanitarian community and you are adaptable then I encourage you to register with CANADEM. Know that you are accepting a level of risk when you accept an assignment. Humanitarian workers have become targets in some parts of the world. But know there are safeguards in place. The UN Department of Safety and Security is tasked with keeping UN staff safe.

Next article I will share more about my GIS work with UNOCHA here in Pakistan.We want to thank Pamela for taking the time from her adventure to share her experiences with the GoGeomatics community.  Stay tuned for more articles from Pamela in Pakistan!

5 comments on "Pamela in Pakistan: Adventures of a Canadian GIS Professional Abroad"

  1. ZebraGIS says:

    I want a job with the UN as well!! I’ve seen more and more international development jobs for GIS on the jobs boards. I think it is a tool the international community is waking up to.

  2. Dan_Taggart says:

    I’m wondering what GIS tools and Pamela is using and for accomplishing what goals? Where the data coming from

    1. Melanie says:

      Hi Dan,

      We are hoping to publish another article from Pamela explaining which GIS tools she is using and what type of projects she is working on. Stay tuned for an update!

  3. erica frank says:

    Hi Pamela!
    It’s great to hear about your adventures! I worked with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Sudan (in Khartoum) back in 2005 as a GIS Specialist and loved it. I remember seeing this CANADEM posting for Islamabad a few months ago.

    I hope you are able to get out of Islamabad and travel around and see other parts of Pakistan! I’m sure you are meeting all sorts of fun people from all over the world. Feel free to e-mail me if you would like tips and/or advice in any area (work or otherwise). I can’t say I know any UNOCHA people in Islamabad, but I know some UNOCHA people at HQ in NYC.

    Keep the postings coming and enjoy the controlled chaos..:)

    cheers,
    erica frank

  4. Fiona says:

    Wow, your shared story is gripping! I am envious of your adventures abroad. I think these types of experiences are what will keep your grandchildren asking for more! Enjoy being in a part of the world that will probably be very different in 20 years!

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