Meet the Experts is a new blog series featuring some of the brilliant minds of CoreLogic. For this edition, I speak with Dr. Howard Botts, chief scientist of CoreLogic. Dr. Botts is a recognized expert in developing natural hazard risk solutions and his work has been published extensively. He frequently presents to businesses and professional organizations on a wide range of topics, including hazard database development, understanding portfolio natural hazard risk, market potential models and geographically-based market analysis.
SS: Thank you very much for joining me, Dr. Botts! Can you tell me a little about yourself? What piqued your interest in the geography field?
HB: Growing up, I traveled a lot with my parents. I was always interested in the built environment. I’d ask questions like, why are things the way they are? What makes up the ethnic mosaic of cities? What successive changes have brought this place to the point it is at today?
Paul Theroux, one of my favorite authors, once said, “A geography teacher has a harmless excuse for being practically everywhere”. I took that to heart. One of my favorite things about geography is that it is all encompassing – you can study natural phenomena like earthquakes and wildfires one day and the cultural landscape of Mexico the next. I have always appreciated the spatial way of seeing the world and using that lens to discover how it was organized into its present form.
SS: You grew up in Los Angeles, studied geography at California State University, Northridge and then moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for your Ph.D. Why did you decide to go to Wisconsin, and what was that transition like for you?
HB: At the time, Wisconsin had the number one geography department in the world, and I wanted to go somewhere different than where I grew up. Madison is a beautiful city with a great university, sports, culture, and year-round festivities. Not to mention, the cost of living is much more affordable than in California!
SS: Your thesis was on “The Commercial Structure and Ethnic Residential Patterns In the Shaping Of Milwaukee: 1880-1900.” What led you to research this topic?
HB: I wanted to understand the ethnic transition and residential and retail structures in Milwaukee as the city went from a large German, Irish and Norwegian makeup to an increase in Italian and Polish influence. This was also around the time when computer mapping was beginning, so I was collecting data at the individual household level. Some of the earliest people developing geographic information systems (GIS) were in Wisconsin, so this is really where my interest in the field began. My thesis helped me understand the structure of Milwaukee and allowed me to learn a lot of technical skills.
SS: I saw that another publication you worked on was focused on the movement of pension fund investments out of the state of Wisconsin. Can you talk more about that?
HB: I was interested in how the state pension funds at the time were all moving to the Sun Belt, systematically defunding Wisconsin. I wanted to investigate if this was a smart policy at a time when there was high unemployment caused by massive factory closures throughout the state. The majority of my research at the university, however, was focused on retail site location. I took the skills I learned in computer mapping and worked as a consultant at a company that did extensive site location work. I developed models used by most of the major retailers in the country at that time. My goal was to help decision-makers make more strategic locational decisions.
After I started teaching, a colleague and I started a company called Matrix Research, which focused on applying GIS to real-world problems. We built site location models for businesses like fast food companies, big-box retailers and branch banks.
SS: Have you worked with startups other than Matrix Research?
HB: After we sold Matrix Research, I formed another company called Proxix Solutions with some teammates. Our value proposition was building extremely granular, detailed models with extremely accurate locations. We pioneered deterministic risk modeling for insurance at a time when carriers were evolving from using single-price policies to including fire, hail and other hazard risks. We even built a geocoder still used at CoreLogic today called PxPoint, which takes an address and gives you the latitude and longitude coordinates. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time to address the business need.
SS: After you completed your Ph.D., you became a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. What was your favorite part of being a professor?
HB: So many things – Most students came in only having taken a geography class, and many later became geography majors. I loved the interaction in and outside of the classroom. I used to teach an annual field course where I took 10 students to places like Paris, New York City, or the US-Mexico border to study geography in the real world. It was incredible to see the world through their eyes.
SS: That sounds wonderful – and a heavy emphasis on learning by doing.
HB: The University always encouraged faculty to practice in the field they taught. More than half of my students were business majors learning applied geospatial skills, so I was able to implement my experiences from the private sector into my teaching. Rather than assigning term papers, I gave the students a series of real-world projects, had them solve problems, and then explain how they arrived at a solution. We discovered there was always more than one way to solve a problem. It also allowed students to develop portfolios they could showcase to potential employers to tangibly demonstrate their skills and experience.
SS: What are some of the differences between working in academia versus working in the private sector?
HB: The biggest difference is the access to meaningful and useful data. The science and analytics division at CoreLogic is very much like a collaborative university environment, but we also get to apply our scientific findings to solve real-world problems. Whereas in academia, almost all of my published papers were fueled by data I collected as a consultant. Moreover, our science and analytics team is continuously learning. Over half have picked up skills in cloud computing and advanced programming, whether it is on the geographic side or the analytics side.
I loved teaching, but ultimately, I have found that I can make a much bigger impact in the private sector. As a professor, you hope your students end up in roles where they can make decisions and enact change. But as part of a wider team, we can create solutions that help people every day. If we can help banks, insurers, governments or homeowners make smarter, data-driven decisions, it has tangible, instant value.
SS: Thank you very much for your time today, Dr. Botts. Before we close, I have just one more question – Is the rumor that you cook a mean brisket true?
HB: That is very true – I even have my own commercial smoker. Many years ago, a business partner and I were on a national speaking tour, and we took a book with us called “Real Barbeque” that listed the top-100 barbeque restaurants in the nation. Over the summer, we visited every location on the list.
What I love about barbeque is that it’s regional. In Texas, you have brisket or beef, while in Kentucky, for instance, you have sheep or mutton. In St. Louis, besides the ribs that they are famous for, they barbeque pork snout. If you go to the Carolinas, they used to believe that tomatoes were poisonous, so they only use vinegar and mustard-based barbeque sauces. As a geographer, it is incredibly fascinating how these regional cuisines are shaped by their location.
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