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Solving it spatially: Matt Dewitte '22

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Senior Matt Dewitte has spent countless hours in UW-Eau Claire's geospatial lab, both working on research and assisting other students as a teaching assistant for introductory level GIS courses. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

When May graduate Matthew Dewitte accepts his University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire degree in geospatial analysis and technology, he will do so with his first career job in hand and a flexible set of skills applicable to nearly any industry opportunity his future presents him.

Blugold geospatial geography graduates are employed in the field at a rate of 100%, in positions as diverse as archeology, communications technology, disaster relief and much more. Dewitte will join the ranks of Travelers Insurance upon graduation, working as a geospatial analyst assessing risk in specific geographic areas.

“The bottom line is spatial is special,” Dewitte says. “When you think about the problems facing the world today, they are all spatial. From climate change to self-driving cars, all these problems are spatial. As geographers, we specialize in spatial thinking, which gives us an incredible toolkit to solve these problems.”

Nationally honored student researcher

Male student smiling in a computer lab, sitting at a work station

In early April 2022, Dewitte Matthew, a geospatial analysis and technology major, was one of three recipients of the Marble-Boyle Undergraduate Achievement Award in Geographic Science. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

When it comes to taking full advantage of every experiential learning opportunity available in geography, Dewitte added internships, teaching assistantships, community outreach and multiple collaborative student-faculty research projects to his comprehensive degree plan.

“Through collaborative research I was able to be a part of many unique fields and ‘cross-pollinate’ with several departments,” the Apple Valley, Minnesota, native says. “Whether it was artificial intelligence for land cover classification or creating a mobile app to track sexual assaults in developing countries, all these problems were spatial in nature. This made it easy for me to be a part of several projects and opportunities I never knew existed when I first enrolled at UW-Eau Claire.”

Dewitte’s undergraduate research experiences, in fact, recently earned him national recognition. As announced in an April news release, Dewitte was one of three undergraduate students in the country to be honored by the American Association of Geographers for outstanding contributions and accomplishments in the geographic field.

Dewitte describes the major research projects for which he earned recognition:

  • Deep Learning for Remote Sensing Image Classification” with Dr. Papia Rozario, lecturer of geography and anthropology, and Dr. Rahul Gomes, assistant professor of computer science.

“We created a model for detecting objects from aerial imagery with artificial intelligence (AI),” Dewitte says. “Our research implements a new way of conducting this analysis, eliminating the need to collect field data and improving a model’s accuracy. This is groundbreaking in the field as it democratizes image classification and detection so that everyone can track changes and trends in the environment efficiently and accurately through our model.”

  • “Terrain Based Search Engine ‘TerraSearch’” with Dr. Matt Haffner, assistant professor of geography and anthropology.

“TerraSearch builds off many of the skills I learned in the first project,” DeWitte says. “This search engine used AI to extract trends and features of terrain through satellite imagery. However, instead of classifying these images, we compare the computer's understanding of them to create a similarity score, allowing us to see what areas are similar to each other. A search engine of these scores allows users to choose and compare all the terrain in Wisconsin. This framework may also be used on a time basis to examine terrain changes in a study area over several years.”

  • “Guatemala Sexual Assault Tracking App” with Rozario, Haffner, Dr. Cyril Wilson, associate professor of geography and anthropology, and Dr. Jeff DeGrave, cultural immersion coordinator and senior lecturer in geography and anthropology.

“This project focuses on partnering the Blugold immersion program in Guatemala with a social justice group there. The app allows people in Guatemala to anonymously report varying acts of sexual assault. The app then uses modern GIS crime detection techniques to deliver real-time analysis to our social justice partners in Guatemala.

“This application will hopefully empower not only Guatemalans but groups around the world to fight sexual assaults in their communities and improve safety conditions for the people living there.”

Rozario, twice a faculty collaborator on projects with DeWitte, describes him as a capable and determined student researcher deserving of the AAG award for several reasons.

“Matt Dewitte is an outstanding student and researcher who made valuable contributions to collaborative research despite having no prior research experience in the deep learning applications of remote sensing,” Rozario says.  

“He has done amazing work, resulting in two poster presentations in the American Association of Geographers (AAG) annual meeting, a national level geographers conference and a journal article in preparation for submission.”

The academic and professional growth Dewitte experienced through these collaborations, he says, is immeasurable, thanks to mentors like Rozario.

“I admire Dr. Rozario’s ambitiousness in projects, and her passion for geospatial analysis,” he says. “As a student I was able to grow under her mentoring since she allowed me to take a very active role in each part of the research process. Her willingness to try new techniques and new ideas allowed me to learn many skills that are essential in the professional world.”

Next step: Using GIS to understand risk

In the summer of 2021, Dewitte completed an internship with American insurance giant The Travelers Companies Inc., where he will begin working as an analyst after graduation. It is a role he says will use “geospatial analysis in creating an application to help applicants get fair quotes based on geographic data.”

“As an intern I worked on building a model to show where it is that policies qualify for government assisted wind pool insurance,” he says. “This work helped ensure that millions of policyholders in coastal states are fairly quoted and received full coverage while allowing Travelers to keep operating in high-risk areas.

“To sum up in a few words, geospatial at Travelers is all about understanding space and place so that we can understand risk and provide unique value for shareholders and customers.”

Dewitte says he is excited to graduate and to apply the skills he acquired in classrooms and research labs to “work to solve problems in areas and causes that matter to me.”