Monday, August 15, 2011

Jon Villasper

Cartographer, wildlife advocate, food lover, GIS specialist and graphic designer Jon M. Villasper talks about being a geographer in this very first Filipino Geographers interview.

Jon Villasper Filipino Geographer GIS Specialist
Basic Info

Name: Jonathan M. Villasper
Hometown: San Juan, Metro Manila 
Profession: Geographer/GIS Specialist/Head of Data Management, Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process
Hobbies and other interests. Physical Geography, Maps, Graphic Design, Art, Birdwatching, Ecology, Wildlife Conservation, Food

Jon Villasper Filipino Geographer GIS Specialist Geography Philippines Wildlife Biogeography Geographic Information Systems
FG: As a child, what did you want to be when you grow up?
Jon: A chemical engineer.

What has inspired you to pursue geography?
Environmental and wildlife conservation issues.

Why did you take up Geography as your undergraduate degree?
I was into environmental issues in my second year as a chemical engineering student when i found myself looking for a new college. I had lots of orgmates from geography and I realized that geography was very useful in understanding environmental issues.

Upon finishing your degree, how was it stepping out to the “real world”?
It worked quite well for me. I tried to get into the environmental unit of an energy firm and an international bank but eventually joined the environmental org that I was a member of where I ran the mapping desk. I realized money wasn’t the objective but the fulfillment of doing something that you love. This is where I learned GIS virtually on my own. After that, I looked for geography-related jobs since I didn’t want to go into any other field except geography. I was successful for the most part except for my latter years where I did the call-center rounds (where I still got to use and impress with my geography) and where I transitioned into doing graphic design (still got to use geography since my designs were mostly related to wildlife conservation). Do note that there were considerable in-between-job days like six months to more than a year doing small projects. Not good for somebody who needs to eat three times a day.

Your Geographic Career

Jon Villasper Filipino Geographer GIS Specialist CartographerWhat would be your typical day at work?
I arrive, look at the clock, and count how many more hours before lunchtime and repeat it again by 1pm. Seriously though, there’s no typical day in my current job. When the office has to deliver, or when new data arrives, we get deep into cleaning up the data, then we standardize, reformat, geocode, and summarize the data. Cleaned up data gets mapped if there’s a point to putting it on a map. During lazy days, we sometimes review our data and look for errors and try to improve it. Sometimes, we have internal tech sessions. You could consider it as an extension of my classroom since my staff also happen to be former students of mine.

What do you like most about your work?
Other than the salary? That has to be the fact that we are in a position to show how relevant geography is and maybe start bringing some attention into the discipline.

What are the challenging parts of your work?
The workload during crunch time. If the office has to present something to the President of the Philippines, we normally get dragged into it in terms of compiling new data, revising old data, and preparing maps.

How is your background in Geography relevant to your profession today?
My work is about conflict. Which areas are conflict-affected? Where are the government interventions? Where is poverty concentrated? Which areas need further government intervention/assistance? How do we choose our project sites? These are the questions we work on and if you’ll notice, they’re all geographic questions.

What were some of the important things you learned in your years as an undergraduate student?
That learning is up to you and there is no end to it.That your prof might have given you a hard time but in the end, if you are serious with what you are taking up, you will appreciate it and probably say that he’s the best prof you’ve ever had.That it’s not about honors that you could receive but the things that you have learned, understood and want to apply in the real world.That finishing college and finishing a four year course is not the same as learning. (or)That some people go to college to get a diploma while some go to learn a discipline.

Lighter Side

What are your favorite geography subjects?
Physical Geography, Geomorphology, Climatology, Cartography, Geography of Soils.

What is your favorite place on Earth?
Home or anywhere quiet with birds and free internet connection.

Where would you most like to travel?
Around the Philippines, Eastern Europe and Northern Britain.

Name a place you would most want to visit.
Liguasan Marsh.

If you were not a geographer, what career would you have chosen?
I actually chose to go to LB to be a vet after being kicked-out of engineering but a friend of mine backed out and I went into geography. Talk about things falling into place.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?
Lightning. I’d like to strike a couple of people dead if I could.

What was the most interesting trip you have ever taken? Why?
Cambridge, England, I guess. It was just one discovery after another. I got to walk around a historical city; saw Newton’s apple (tree) and Darwin’s house (which was already a department store); got to buy tons of books and CD's; got to wear a coat and a tie; appreciated classic architecture, art and homeless street performers with bankable talent; flew business class most of the times (went there thrice); got to watch football for the first time with absolutely fanatic guys (which got me hooked on football eventually); impressed people by having dark beer at the pub; had the best potato chips ever (that’s Walker’s Crisps I think and it’s better than Lay’s); had a humongous platter of sausage sandwich; had coffee in a historical coffee shop that used to be frequented by big classic names in philosophy, politics, science (you know, they’re those guys that you read about in soc sci 1 and 2 or pol sci 11 or 14); used their library (i still have my library card); gone birdwatching several times and got to see thousands of swans in one lake; and got to see and hold the first Philippine Eagle ever discovered (actually the second) on its 100th year of discovery...and all these while being paid to do work that you love.

Final Thoughts

What current issue/world problem can geographers help solve?
Lots, if only they would listen to common sense.

What contributions could Filipino Geographers make or leave behind?
Sensible, sound and well-thought of decisions.

What can we do, as geographers, to raise the profile of the discipline of Geography in the country?
We geographers are what some would call jacks-of-all-trades, masters-of-none. Some look at this in a negative way but this is actually a good thing. Wikipedia tells us that a jack “may be a master of integration, as such an individual knows enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring their disciplines together in a practical manner. This person is a generalist rather than a specialist. A person who is exceptional in many disciplines is known as a polymath or a "Renaissance man"; a typical example is Leonardo da Vinci.” Consider yourself privileged to know a lot of things and it’s up to you to tie them all up and be a master of integration. Integration of information is the key especially in this Age of Information. Be a know-it-all (in a nice way, of course) and be able to prove that you are right.

What are the prospects for geography in the future?
I don’t know. It’s up to find the marks left by other geographers, pick it up and use it and leave yours.

What would be some life lessons you learned as a geographer?
1. Geography can be applied in almost anything, including baking. Seriously. Ever heard of instructions for baking in high altitudes? One of my cookbooks actually has that information.
2. Hardship teaches you something valuable that you can only unlock if you value what you do.
3. Strive for perfection. Eventually, you’re standards are so high that the thing you submitted and thought of as trash was the best that ever landed on your boss’ table.
4. Volunteer work teaches you a lot of things and you can learn or experiment on new techniques through this.

Any advice to aspiring geographers?
Geography is a very big discipline and it cannot be taught in your years in college even if you stay on for ten. It’s not necessarily your teachers’ fault if you didn’t learn everything that you needed to know. It’s just that there’s too little time to teach everything. If you feel that you didn’t learn enough, visit Booksale and grab one or two geography books. That’s what I did after graduation. I bought books on physical geography, geology, human geography, economic geography, biogeography, tropical climatology, etc and read them from cover to cover. I did this to equip myself with more knowledge or strengthen what I learned from my profs. I still have a couple more books to buy.

If you would like to get in touch with Jon, simply visit his Facebook account or email him at jmvillasper[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. Good show Jon! Everything happens in space and to add to baking, when I was in Thailand, there was also a geography of toilets!

    And the geography of toilets is inextricably linked with the biogeography of disease!

  2. Geography EnthusiastAugust 15, 2011 at 10:51 PM

    Kudos to the people behind this wonderful site. We're looking forward to the next geographers you'll be featuring. :)

  3. Thank you very much for the encouragement, Geography enthusiast. Long live geography!

  4. Geography is life <3 <3