UW-Madison students and recent graduates are using their GIS skills to ensure better access to broadband in rural areas. Photo: Artie Medvedev / Getty

When people ask Alex Nelson ’18 to explain his job, he offers a simple description of complex work: geographical problem-solver.

With degrees in cartography and geographic information systems (GIS), Nelson is part of the expanding team at Madison-based Millennium Geospatial, which has hired a number of alumni and student interns from the College of Letters & Science since opening its doors three years ago.

Nelson is part of the company’s efforts to develop GIS maps for utilities seeking to expand broadband coverage to rural areas in Wisconsin. More than 400,000 people in the state don’t have any access to high-speed internet.

“We’re providing them with internet, probably for the first time, and they’ve been waiting years to get it,” Nelson says. “So it feels cool to be a part of a team that’s helping out.”

The problem won more attention and attracted millions of dollars in federal funding after the COVID-19 pandemic had adults and kids trying to work and learn from home with spotty or no internet access.

“They’re working on real live problems and real live communities,” says Kevin Maes, Millennium’s vice president of engineering. “We’re building networks. We’re literally making connections, and people are getting broadband based on the plans that we’re making.”

GIS multi-layered map

In many cases, utilities don’t have the information they need to expand broadband service in rural areas — a regular map doesn’t tell a complete enough story. With GIS tools, his firm can make a map with multiple layers, linked to spreadsheets and tables loaded with data that can guide decision-making. “We’re trying to find more efficient ways to build,” Maes says. “How do you stretch your dollar to get more broadband out to rural residents?”

Maes founded Millennium after a 20-year career in the telecommunications industry because he couldn’t find a firm to make the kinds of maps he needed to do his work. The idea took shape several years ago during a GIS software conference, where he heard a Starbucks executive explain how the company used the technology in California to predict unseasonably hot weather, plan marketing campaigns promoting iced coffee and other cold drinks, and secure supply chains to meet demand.

“That’s when I started to realize you can combine different things that aren’t even related at all and use them for your strategy,” Maes says.

By making its home in Madison, Millennium has access to a pool of talent it can train to support its mission. The firm has a team of 30, including interns, and half are UW graduates.

“There’s a reason I’m here,” Maes says. “The university is amazing. The people that we’ve gotten from UW are amazing.”

When the pandemic put her Peace Corps deployment on hold after she graduated with degrees in Spanish and environmental science with an emphasis in GIS, Lily Zander ’21 spotted an internship listing with Millennium on the UW Job Board. She was motivated to apply because of the firm’s focus on community economic development and its work expanding broadband to rural areas. “That’s exactly what my position would have been with Peace Corps,” Zander says.

Zander hopes to use her GIS skills to eventually launch an agricultural technology startup. “It’s a really great tool for analyzing that data and presenting it in a way that we might not have been able to, and for presenting solutions to problems that before we weren’t able to see,” she says.

Interns at Millennium work alongside employees and have the opportunity to help with or take on their own projects. “It doesn’t take very long for an intern — they can be here three months and they can train the next intern,” Maes says.

At UW–Madison, cartography and GIS majors take courses including graphic design, web mapping to big data analytics and mobile application development, with lab work that uses industry-standard cartography and GIS technology. But Maes said the company also got a huge early boost from students in other majors — including biology, geology and physics — who bring different and important perspectives beyond a traditional approach.

“It’s the willingness to try to dig through something to figure out a solution for it,” Maes says. “You’ve got to have that initial thing — and that’s really what we look for.”

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