Carrie Stokes, MSES'96

Turning data into decisions:

The SPEA alumna behind the USAID GeoCenter

Carrie Stokes, MSES’96, was honored by the Association of American Geographers this year with the Gilbert White Public Service Award for her “unwavering commitment to public service through advancing geography within and beyond government.”

Stokes works for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where she was the first to hold the position of geographer. She established and now runs USAID’s GeoCenter, which uses spatial analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) to inform U.S. international development and humanitarian efforts.

James Barnes in front of a wall of photos.

We are not just creating the next generation of maps for USAID, we are creating the next generations of mappers for the world.

Stokes took her first GIS class as an environmental science graduate student at SPEA. “It was a bit painful, because the software was really clunky 20 years ago. Everything was command-driven in UNIX. But when I learned that GIS could layer disparate data sets and help visualize relationships in space, it opened up a whole new way to think about addressing the complex issues we face as a society,” Stokes said.

USAID provides foreign assistance in over 100 countries and aims to eradicate extreme poverty around the world. The GeoCenter helps USAID track and evaluate the impact of their efforts by creating maps and helping the agency think spatially about problems like food security, human trafficking, climate change, and the spread of global diseases. The GeoCenter’s data also helps with strategic planning efforts and improves the dialogue between USAID field offices and their host countries as they evaluate development needs.Through a remote sensing program and partnership with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, USAID field missions can now access unclassified, high-resolution satellite imagery cost-free. This imagery is used to enhance dozens of development projects, like combatting malaria in Mozambique, selecting irrigation sites in Honduras, and preserving endangered wildlife in Bangladesh. Other GeoCenter project examples include mapping cell phone coverage in Liberia to aid Ebola recovery efforts, tracking human vulnerability in Uganda, countering human trafficking in Southeast Asia, and mapping the immigration of unaccompanied children from Central America.

Stokes is especially proud to have established a global network of foreign nationals working as GIS specialists in USAID missions abroad. The agency supports more than 40 GIS specialists embedded in Washington and in 25 missions around the globe.

The GeoCenter is connecting people across boundaries that are not just geographical, but also generational. Last fall, the GeoCenter launched a program allowing university students in the U.S. and developing countries to work together to map previously unmapped places where USAID works. Their data is publicly available and is accessible to anyone who has access to the internet.

“We are not just creating the next generation of maps for USAID,” Stokes said. “We are creating the next generations of mappers for the world.”