Hello There!

A little about me…

I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado and currently residing in Austin, Texas. In May of 2019 I received my Ph. D. from Arizona State University in Public Administration and Policy. My M.S. is in Geography (emphasis on GIS) and my B.S. is in Environmental Science (Minor in Fisheries and Wildlife Management). I have coined myself as a spatially aware applied policy scientist. In other words, I naturally gravitate towards the spatial processes that are inherent to many policy problems. My academic background is a reflection of my varied research interests and an example of my ability to work across multiple subject areas. The skills I have acquired during my academic career facilitate this ability. My current research projects include the use and application of emerging technology (drones) in urban environments and the development of novel approaches to detect and estimate the severity of destabilizing events in dense coastal cities. Past projects have included modeling species abundance off the U.S. west coast, designing python-based user interfaces, oil spill modeling, and measuring neighborhood disorder. Broadly, my research interests include GIS, risk analysis, impact assessment, urban planning and analysis, and unmanned aerial vehicles. I currently work as a postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin - School of Information, with my supervisor, Dr. Tony Grubesic.


Research Projects

Drones in the urban environment

What are the implications of increased urban drone use from an academic, professional, and social standpoint?

For the past four years I have been investigating, from multiple viewpoints, the implications of using drones in the urban environment. Along with my advisor, Dr. Tony Grubesic and other collaborators, we have approached this project from several vantage points. In order to fully understand the future of drone use we must first have a good understanding of the benefits, risks, and points of contention. To that extent, this project has explored ways to improve on methods for urban observation, explored the relationship between drone characteristics and privacy perceptions, and documented the ethical dimensions of drone governance. My dissertation continued this line of research by determining how local drone use policy moves from one municipality to another.

Detecting the severity of destabilizing coastal events

Urban areas, particularly those in coastal locations, are facing increased threats. How do we detect and minimize their negative impacts?

As a result of the changing climate, coastal areas are having to increasingly contend with threats from sea-level rise, coastal erosion, severe weather, as well as things like pollution. With a predominant focus on anthropogenic disasters and forcings, this project is aimed at enhancing methods to not only detect the severity of destabilizing events but also develop ways to reduce the severity of these events. In other words, this research project investigates how the severity of destabilizing events can be reduced by enhancing resilience. I approach this work through geographically based frameworks that are informed by social theories, namely social capital. Studies have shown that heightened social capital plays an important role in resilience. The problem, however, is that data representing social capital is not readily available in many areas of the world. Thus, a portion of this work investigates how we can mine/create/establish disparate data sources as proxies for social capital.

offshore oil spill Risk assessment, preparedness, and impact mitigation

Offshore oil production remains a critical economic engine. How do we enhance safety and preparedness?

My longest running project (began as my masters thesis) has been focused on many different aspects of oil spill response and preparedness. Initially funded by the National Energy Technology Laboratory and in direct response to the Deepwater Horizon the main focus has been on the development of methods and approaches for modeling risk, impact, and vulnerability to coastal systems. This necessarily includes the sensitive environmental and social assets that are particularly susceptible to the effects of oil. In 2016, I began work on a grant from the National Academies of Science - Gulf Research Program to build a spatial decision support system to aid in oil spill response. Using advanced spatial optimization methods we developed three response models for 1) allocating response equipment to a spill under time and monetary constraints, 2) determined how to allocate sparse exclusion booms to sensitive resources to minimize damage, and 3) allocate equipment prior to a spill occurring that uses the sensitive resources rather than the spill trajectory to determine optimal allocations. I continue to work in this area, working to improve oil spill preparedness through spatio-temporal models and methods. I have recently began another project focused on way to identify “at-risk” infrastructure that could be on the brink of failure.


other projects

A varied set of research interests leads to a varied set of research projects

My varied interests in research have spurred my involvement in several other research streams. I was involved with the environmental justice and policy initiative at ASU. I have been interested in working in the environmental/social justice space for some time and found this group to be an excellent way to develop that interest. I recently submitted a paper on “sense of place” with two colleagues from ASU. What drives someone to attach themselves to a place has important implications for pro-social behavior as well as understanding the difficulties in relocating individuals that live in particularly at-risk coastal communities. I also published a scientometric analysis of the environmental justice literature last year. Having lived in Arizona for the past several years I became interested in how access to environmental amenities, such as trees and greenspace, varies across a region. In a recent conference paper I found that the percent tree cover across the Phoenix metro area has a negative relationship with Hispanic population.

Other applications of UAV data to the urban environment is my recent work on calculating roof-top solar potential. The massive point clouds produced by the UAV (10 - 100 million points) offer a fantastic ability to recreate the built environment. Combined with high resolution orthoimagery the total amount of solar radiance for rooftops can be calculated at very fine resolutions. In the illustration on the right you can easily see the effects of tree shading and even smaller changes in radiance from air conditioning units and previously installed solar panels. This work, along with several other UAV applications will appear in my forthcoming co-authored book small unmanned aerial vehicles for urban spatial analysis: an introduction which will be published by Springer.

Subject Area Expertise


Technical Skills


Castle hot springs from 600 feet above. Taken with the Wingtra VTOL unmanned aerial system and processed with Pix4D.


Spatial extent of an oil spill simulation in the Gulf. Degree of oiling is measured as the amount of oil that passes through one 1km x 1km pixel over the duration of the simulated spill. The spill simulation was performed using the BLOSOM oil spill model.


Percent tree cover across the Phoenix metro area. After controlling for a number of other factors, percent tree cover was negatively related to Hispanic population and positively related to median home value.

The roof-top daily solar potential calculated using a super-high resolution UAV derived elevation model and structure information from the UAV point cloud


School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University

Ph.D Public Administration and Policy
Graduated May 2019


College of earth ocean and atmospheric science, Oregon State university

M.S. Geography, GIS
Graduated June 2014


College of earth ocean and atmospheric science, Oregon State university

B.S. Environmental Science, Fisheries and Wildlife Management
Graduated June 2012

Current and Former Appointments

PostDoctoral Fellow, School of information, University of Texas at austin (Current)

Post Graduate Research Fellow, Oak ridge institute for science and education (current)

Graduate Research and Teaching Assistant, Arizona State University

Graduate Research and Teaching Assistant, Drexel University

Graduate Research assistant, Oregon State university

Undergraduate research fellow, Oak ridge institute for science and education

Contact and Social

Email: jakenels@gmail.com, nelsonjr@netl.doe.gov

Twitter: @nelsojak


Maybe we have some things in common outside research interests….

Stuff I like to talk about: Watches (collecting), Formula 1 (McLaren FTW), beer, good scotch, golf, college baseball, EDC, sneakers

Stuff I do not like to talk about: Politics

Stuff I like to do: Golfing, sand volleyball, softball, working out, mountain biking, hiking (sometimes), scuba, finding a good pub, eating good food, seeing good music

Favorite album of 2019 (so far): Mystery Machine by Martrix and Futurebound

Favorite Band: Enter Shikari, Pendulum

Goal for the next year (or so): Complete a 30 mile running race.