In her first job at SCS Engineers, Joy Stephens worked in a small trailer, consolidating and analyzing data from landfill field techs’ notes, recorded in logbooks they lugged around while navigating the challenging site terrain, then brought to her covered in leachate and mud.
She cross-referenced their detailed, handwritten records with a master list posted on a wall, organized, and methodically examined them. Then she turned them into actionable intel for SCS’s engineers and scientists.
“That was definitely easier said than done. It was a lot of work – a lot of hours to make sure that we were ready for the next day. It struck me that there’s got to be a better way. That we could make collecting and using this valuable information easier for the field staff and OM&M (Operations, Monitoring & Maintenance),” she says.
GIS Supports Wellfield Operations
From that inspiration came a lot of brainstorming, developing, and tweaking what today is a powerful yet user-friendly GIS system that stores and organizes volumes of geographical information in one place and gives users what they need fast to troubleshoot landfill conditions. The customizable application is now used at hundreds of landfills across the country, mainly to support wellfield operations, though it has other landfill system applications.
Field techs enter information onto digital forms using a mobile app and submit the data, uploading it to the cloud. OM&M teams have it in a streamlined format in a couple of minutes and can visualize what they are looking for on maps from a dashboard.
The technology that Stephens was an integral player in launching continues to evolve, and there’s a story behind that evolution.
“In the beginning, I reached out to this brilliant young lady, Brooke Aumann, from the Tampa office, who does a lot of GIS work. I had some GIS experience myself, but more landfill knowledge. I picked her brain so we could set up a digital replacement for the logbooks that zeroed in on exactly what the field techs and project managers needed to support our clients,” says Stephens, an environmental scientist.
Together, the two women created experimental web maps to plot and visualize basic information such as the location of each monitoring point, points requiring the collection of liquid levels, and the status of maintenance tasks at each well. Then they developed digital survey forms with more detailed information and connected those forms to the maps; this enabled end-users to overlay even more data for a holistic snapshot of what goes on at wellfields.
“We tried different configurations of web maps and symbology to depict best what we wanted to convey. We talked about what we needed to symbolize and how we needed to symbolize it. And we discussed possibilities for future developments. We knew much more was possible in terms of what we could collect, how all of these data are connected, and how we could exploit the software to better tackle more complex tasks,” Stephens says.
From maps to interfacing data forms to the next level X-ray vision
“Now we’ve gone a step further. We’re doing 3D well visualizations, which give a kind of Superman X-ray vision subsurface. You are literally looking beneath to the well to get good intel,” Stephens says.
Traversing the World
With undergraduate degrees in Mandarin Chinese and geology and graduate degrees in teaching science and environmental management, Stephens has long loved learning, the environment, and nature.
“When I was young, my parents were missionaries, and I grew up in the most beautiful, pristine, remote areas, like the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – so unspoiled and lovely.”
It was a sharp contrast to what she would see later when she moved with her young son to China, where she taught math and science. The air quality was poor, and the streets and landscape were inundated with litter.
That experience was the final push that landed the young professional at the foot of a career path she’d considered for some time; environmental sciences. She’d taught it before, but a voice inside her was telling her to pivot and actually start doing the work.
Stephens found her way into a program at a university in Scotland after researching graduate environmental management programs worldwide. At this prestigious learning institution, she first worked with remote sensors and GIS, identifying and addressing “waste crimes,” namely illegal dumping.
Seizing the opportunity to apply her expertise
After graduation, the teacher-turned-scientist took her education and experience back to the United States and SCS Engineers. The company was not foreign to her. By the time she applied, she had made as much a project of vetting employers as she had of scoping out universities. Two draws drew her attention:
“There is the ethos; SCS is genuinely committed to the environment. And the other part that was important to me is SCS is very invested in professional growth and training to foster that growth. I believed that I would have opportunities to move up,” Stephens reflects, recalling when she said yes to the first job working with those logbooks that would be the catalyst to what was to come.
When she came on board, she had to gain practical experience in the solid waste industry and learn the ropes in the field, in addition to her prior experience in renewable energy. In time she had learned her way around landfill gas collection wells, then kept building on that knowledge.
“I asked a ton of questions. Why are we monitoring for this? What constitutes good gas quality? Why is it important to know liquid levels? What is the difference between vacuum and flow? I think asking all these questions, collecting field data myself, and watching what the guys in the field had to do, gave me a good base understanding to help inform how we would capture the right information using GIS. It was a collaborative effort. Brooke worked on many landfill projects and my colleague, Chris Carver, had 16 years of field and project management work. It all came together.”
She later joined the RMC team (Remote Monitoring and Controls), where she received further training in GIS and mastered other skill sets. Today she is a project professional specializing in GIS and drone services.
At home with waste management
The hybrid techie-artist in Stephens comes out when she makes an analogy that tells a little of how her wheels turn.
She grew up playing Legos and now, at almost 40 years old, still builds with them at home with her son.
She approaches the job the same way as when she assembles those sets.
“You know the pieces fit to make something, but it takes creativity to figure out just how to build it and make it as visually pleasing and functional as you can, or to get it to function in different ways. I try to configure and piece together for the best possible design,” she says.
Stephens has married that approach with a desire to be a part of both restoring and protecting the environment. She thinks she’s in the right place to act on that intention.
“I feel like work with waste management and SCS is a way to achieve what I think is so important. We are trying to protect, remediate, and leave conditions better than we found them. That is what being a good steward is all about.”
See Joy Stephens at work in her recent educational presentation for landfill owners and operators. Joy demonstrates technologies to reduce the time to collect, process, and show data.