Profile: Jonathan Nelson

Jonathan Nelson
Jonathan Nelson, Assistant Professor of GIS&T and Associate Director of GIS Professional Programs

Name: Jonathan Nelson

Title: Assistant Professor of GIS&T and Associate Director of GIS Professional Programs

Start date: Fall 2022

Can you tell us more about your path to UW-Madison and your new role in the Geography Dept?

I’ve had an exciting journey leading up to this moment! Just prior to joining UW-Madison, I directed the Center for Environmental Informatics at Penn State and developed and taught courses in the Online Geospatial Education program. I have also served as a GIScientist at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, as well as worked as a cartographer for National Geographic Society and UX designer for Strava Metro, where I gained practical experience in effective map design and in the implementation and evaluation of interactive, visually-based analysis tools that support practitioners and scientists in making sense of large amounts of movement data.

My new role at UW-Madison allows me to combine my diversity of experiences as an educator, researcher, and practitioner in GIScience to help shape and grow one of the most unique and prestigious programs for professional education in GIS and Cartography. I am inspired by the role these online and hybrid GIS programs play in making geospatial education more accessible, particularly for adult learners or under-represented student audiences who may not have the option to experience a more traditional residence program. My new role also allows me to pursue a research and teaching agenda I am passionate about (more on this below).

What excites you the most about your role in Geography?

My motivation as a geographic scholar and teacher is to contribute to bridging the analytical divide between experts in spatial data science and individuals not trained in the discipline but who seek to understand and make informed decisions based on spatial data. This overarching goal is inspired by over a decade of work in academia, government, and the private sector, focused on leveraging maps, geovisual analytics tools, and human-centered design methods to address critical challenges in a wide variety of domains and from experience mentoring and teaching the next generations of GIS&T students so they, too, can contribute to the field in ways that inspire or interest them.

Can you describe your research and the work that you do within the Geography discipline?

I am a researcher in geographic information science, specializing in cartography, geovisual analytics, and human-centered design with applications in environmental science, fitness and health, politics, socioeconomics, transportation, and urban planning. My work emphasizes the significant role of visual communication in making spatial data more accessible, legible, and valuable. I have a growing interest in examining the role of maps and data visualization in enriching our personal lives. With the rise of the Quantified-Self movement and widespread adoption of geo-enabled self-tracking technologies, “personal” has become a new dimension in the map and geovisualization design process. My research in this area focuses on developing new map and interaction design paradigms to meet the disparate needs of an ever-growing number of data creators. Other ongoing research activities include the development of design guidelines for multiscale thematic mapping, creation of spatial decision support tools and open data platforms for environmental applications, and assessment of pedagogical design for higher GIS education.

What are some things you are looking forward to doing in Madison?

I am looking forward to exploring new trails in one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, getting out on the beautiful lakes, and visiting all the different farmer’s markets.


I enjoy just about any outdoor activity! I am an avid cyclist, hiker, nordic skier, photographer, and dog lover.

*We offer our thanks to Jonathan for taking the time to answer our questions for this profile.

Author: Geography Staff