Employee spotlight: Mark Nitz brings philosophy lens to data science job
Mark Nitz, business system analyst with CHS, created a geospatial reporting system that drives efficiency in the work of pipeline valve inspection.
By Liz Grady
Most people entering the geospatial information systems (GIS) field have a technological background, but not Mark Nitz. His background: philosophy.
Nitz, a business system analyst with the CHS refinery in Laurel, Mont., holds three degrees: a B.S. in geology, a B.A. in philosophy and an M.A. in philosophy. While he was in school, an academic advisor hinted at emerging opportunities with GIS, which is a type of database combining geographic data with software tools to create visualizations of data. Nitz took a few classes and found he liked it.
“What floats my boat is assessing how we understand what truth is,” he says. “It’s about making sure people know whether or not they are interacting with information that represents the truth and whether it corresponds with the real world.”
Although philosophy may seem unrelated to the hands-on work at pipelines and refineries, Nitz says his philosophy training is surprisingly relevant in his work managing data relationships at CHS. He ensures that data from reality is being accurately captured and reflected in reporting.
About 18 months ago, Dave Lackey, a senior valve engineer at the CHS refinery in McPherson, Kan., approached Nitz to see if they could create a more efficient system than what they’d previously been using: first, a series of PDF reports and later, a database that wasn’t user-friendly. They decided to create something better.
Building upon existing technology platforms, Nitz created a real-time reporting system that simplifies the process of getting data from valve inspections to the people who need that information. Using this technology, an inspector looks at a valve and enters data on whether it’s passed inspection (noted in green) or needs attention (noted in yellow). The system analysts can see the result immediately, seconds after the data is entered. This creates a direct line between what is happening out in the field and the decisions being made in the office, Nitz says.
Pipeline valves are essential in keeping CHS refineries operating efficiently and safely, he says. In the case of any incident, the valves must activate promptly to prevent spills. “That’s why we always want to know that the emergency flow restriction system is up and running,” he says.
To keep CHS employees and the environment safe, Nitz says, “we want to know when our valves are working and immediately when they are not.” Any valves that require work may be nonfunctional and prevent the emergency flow restriction from working.
Nitz’s reporting system allows the team to know which valves need work immediately, rather than having the information go through a long chain of people before reaching the decision maker. “It’s fun to watch,” he says. “While valve inspections are happening out in the field, you will see them turn green on the map.”
The GIS team at CHS is small yet mighty, says Nitz, with only two CHS employees across the globe with GIS analyst titles. “The joy of working with people who are motivated is what motivates me,” he says. “Other GIS-ers at CHS see opportunities and possibilities, which makes them inspiring and a lot of fun to work with. They are really the GIS champions.”
For anyone curious about careers in GIS, Nitz suggests gaining awareness of what GIS means and how it works. Many careers outside of tech use this mapping technology – including soil scientists, climate scientists and even business strategists. “You can certainly look at data on a table,” says Nitz, “but you will be more informed if you can look at it contextually on a map.”