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UTC Emeritus Establishes Sööt Family Fund

Siim Soot

Siim Sööt - The man behind the Sööt family fund

You’re driving along the highway and all of a sudden - boom! - you hit traffic. No idea what’s going on ahead, and no idea how long it will last. It’s a gridlock. Before the advent of smart phones or wayfinding technology, that was the end of discussion. Nothing to do but wait or get off at the next ramp. Dr. Siim Soot, a former geography professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, has spent a good part of his career trying to find a better way.

Even though Soot took Emeritus status in 2000, he continues to contribute to UIC in important ways, one of which is the establishment of the Soot Family Fund this year. The fund is earmarked to promote programs, initiatives and priorities of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, and this year was used in part to fund the college’s annual GIS day.

It seems fitting (and a touch ironic) that as I spoke with him, he was stuck in traffic somewhere in Wisconsin on his way back to his longtime home in Winnetka, a north suburb of Chicago.

Soot built his career at the intersection of math and geography. In 1970 he joined UIC to teach computer mapping and spatial analysis (GIS, Geographic Information Systems), the first university in the country to have a full-year course on the subject (in 1968). What is now ubiquitous was at the time actually rather cutting edge.

“For 20 years I was told I was wasting my time,” he said. “Americans are not into maps.”

But during his time at UIC he completed over 50 externally funded research studies summing over $7 million and served as head of the Department of Geography at UIC as well as executive director of the Urban Transportation Center.

The ADVANCE project, in particular, Soot calls one of the high points in his research career. The ADVANCE project was completed in conjunction with several universities and was at the time the largest project in the U.S. that dealt with dynamic route guidance, which estimates real-time travel times.

P.S. Sriraj, the current director of the Urban Transportation Center remembers this project and the work of Soot, and credits it with putting transportation research at UIC on the map.

As head of the Geography Department, Soot focused heavily on the quantitative aspects of geography, and many of his students excelled, becoming successful academics and professionals.

Before joining UIC, Soot emigrated to the United States as a child along with his family, who fled the Russian occupation of their native Estonia. They settled in Portland, OR, where Soot’s father worked his way up from a carpenter to become a leading structural engineer with projects on several continents. His mother worked at a large tech company to help put their four sons through college. It is in part to honor their sacrifices in starting over in a new country that Soot decided to create the Soot Family Fund.

“Largely because we came to the United States under rather difficult circumstances and we’re so indebted to be able to come to the U.S… I thought it was a way to pay back and to also acknowledge that I’ve had really good experiences in the College of Urban Planning [and Public Affairs at UIC],” Soot said.

He also hopes that the name of the fund (his last name) will pique curiosity about its origin, and may even prompt people to look into the history of Estonia, as well as the country’s bright future in tech.

According to Soot, Estonia is one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. It was one of the first to have mobile parking throughout, the parliament has been paperless for dozens of years, and the first major cyber attack occurred in Estonia in 2007. As a citizen and honorary consul for Estonia, Soot is even able to vote online using three pin numbers.

“I like to think that some of the things I worked on in GIS has a lot of common spirit with my friends and fellow Estonians,” he said. “ It’s a small country and in establishing this fund I was hoping that some people would have some curiosity about the origin of my name.”

Aside from visiting Estonia and traveling internationally as a professor at the college, Soot delights in traveling widely throughout the U.S., climbing atop state signs to keep track of his travels. He’s made it to all of the “lower” 48 … which he instead refers to as the “middle 48” because it’s more accurate.

“As a geographer I wanted to document where I have visited and thought, ‘What would be a better way to climb on top of a sign?’” he said.

Despite all of his travels, Soot is emphatic about Chicago, and sees it as the perfect place for students interested in planning and geography to get started.

“I have such faith in the faculty and the leadership of the college,” he said.  “UIC and Chicago are just ideal places to get started. There’s so many opportunities here. Housing for a large metro area like Chicago is very affordable. It’s so accessible to the rest of the world … It’s really an ideal place for students to start their career.”