Developing the Next Generation of Geospatial Skills
Geospatial skills and the widespread use of geographic information systems (GIS) have established themselves over the past three or four decades, and today GIS forms the backbone of many big data analytics projects in nearly every industry. But do we have skilled geospatial workers who can meet the needs of today’s enterprises?
“There is certainly no shortage of people who understand how to work with GIS software and who understand the underlying concepts of what this software is designed to do,” says Dr. Denis Dean, dean of the School of Economic, Political and Policy Science and professor of geography and geospatial information science at the University of Texas at Dallas. “But what we need is an extension of this knowledge into the field of analytics and problem solving, because that’s what companies are looking for. It is our job as educators to develop the skills, concepts and underlying ideas that can facilitate this kind of critical thinking.”
Dean says that most organizations today have a relatively small, dedicated GIS team with a couple of senior analysts who are relied upon to solve the more deeply rooted analytics problems that other staff members lack skills for. “These are lean GIS staffs, so what organizations want is to improve the capabilities of all of their team members so that everyone is able to get their hands dirty in these new analytics projects.”
What new geospatial skills are needed to improve these analytics capabilities?
“Companies are using new terms now when they look at geospatial skills,” says Darryl Murdock, vice president of professional development at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). “They use terms like business intelligence, and they want to apply geospatial analytics to business areas like logistics, manufacturing, life sciences and marketing.”
Murdock says that USGIF was sponsoring a four-day business symposium this spring designed to bring together academic institutions and also major organizations like Sandia, MIT, DARPA, IBM and others. “We’re asking for increased collaboration between academic institutions and business to ensure that the right types of geospatial skills are getting taught to meet industry needs, because we know that the types of geospatial analytics applications that organizations want are not being as widely addressed in academic curricula as they should be.”
The USGIF mission is “to promote the geospatial intelligence tradecraft and to develop a stronger community of interest between government, industry, academia, professional organizations and individuals who share a mission focused around the development and application of geospatial intelligence to address national security objectives.” According to Murdock, USGIF now has 261 member organizations that include three government agencies and 1 million individual memberships. It is designing a Universal GEOINT Certification for GEOINT professionals around the world who have at least three to five years of real-world experience and a working understanding of physical and human geography. To achieve certification, candidates must pass three rigorous exams based on the fundamentals of remote sensing, GIS, data management and data visualization. USGIF is also piloting a new essential body of knowledge (EBK) certification for geospatial professionals. USGIF has certified 13 university programs that are now teaching the deep analytics skills in the geospatial field that companies and government are seeking.
“Depending on whether you are inside or outside of government, the continuing education needs might be different,” Murdock says. “For example, if you are in government, you might spend your first five to seven years as a GIS analyst and then be promoted into a supervisory role. This doesn’t guarantee that you will continue to grow your geospatial skills in analytics, and it is also one of the reasons why we get frequent calls from geospatial workers around the world saying that they need some kind of certification that will enable them to differentiate their advanced analytics skills from those of other geospatial specialists who haven't got these skills.”
At the University of Texas at Dallas — one of USGIF’s accredited academic institutions — students work in areas of unstructured problem solving where there are few ground rules laid and where they must rely on their own creative problem solving skills in geospatial technology. “These are real-world problems that we ask our student to solve,” Dean says. “In one case, we have an instructor from a global consulting firm that assists clients in determining where they should locate new facilities. He uses examples from his firm’s facility location projects to devise real-world problem scenarios that our students must apply their geospatial skill sets to.”
The university also actively partners with industry, which participates in a curriculum advisory capacity and also provides on-the-job internships to University of Texas at Dallas students. “Virtually any level of involvement is open to companies to participate in our program,” Dean says. “Companies can participate in an advisory position, or they can give guest lectures, provide internships and recruit.” While many curriculum design efforts are targeted at younger undergraduate programs, it is not only young undergrads that companies and the university seek to educate. Employers also want to expand the knowledge bases of their existing GIS and geospatial intelligence employees who need skills development in analytics.
“For these continuing students who are already working in industry and government, we offer graduate level certifications,” Dean says. “Most of the students are already skilled in a particular geospatial intelligence area, but they are desiring exposure to new areas so they can enhance their skills.”
The additional training is needed because, in the future, many of the more routine workflows of GIS will be automated so human beings can tackle a higher order of tasks. “There will be much less need to massage data, and more call for creative and innovative problem solving, and this is where the skills development is needed,” Murdock says.
As the geospatial intelligence field continues its evolution, what steps should geospatial and GIS programs and professionals be taking now?
Institutions teaching geospatial skills should actively partner with government and industry to ensure that their courses are in tune with what companies want: skilled geospatial professionals who are able to creatively problem solve with GIS data, as well as apply new technologies and analytic techniques that were not available five or 10 years ago. Conversely, experienced professionals and employers should work with those developing the courses to voice their current and future needs to help keep the courses relevant to attract new entrants and to help current professionals hone their skills.
Those already working in geospatial jobs also need to keep their knowledge fresh.
“You need to not only grow your geospatial knowledge, but to keep yourself somewhat broad,” Dean says. “GIS really has so many different facets to it. It is not just computer mapping. GIS and geospatial intelligence also incorporate new technologies like sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), and it now has applications in many different business areas.”