A 2017 poll by ESRI revealed that GIS managers in companies felt that their GIS programs lacked relevance. ESRI replied to the poll by saying, a “lack of relevance usually results from having executive management that is uninformed about GIS technology and, therefore, can't explain the merits of GIS to their business peers. GIS can also suffer from a dearth of awareness when the GIS team is ineffective at marketing its services.” (http://www.esri.com/esri-news/arcnews/winter17articles/establishing-the-relevance-of-gis-in-your-organization)

Add this to the fact that many GIS professionals comfortably stay at their posts for many years, and aren't that excited about introducing changes and new technology. However, there is a deeper problem that goes beyond organizational resistance to change. This is the issue of geospatial education itself, and whether colleges and universities are effectively educating students in the geospatial skill sets that companies are looking for.

“It can be a challenge,” says Karen Schuckman, assistant teaching professor in geospatial technology at Penn State University. “The geospatial industry is rapidly evolving, as are the technologies and the tools that are in use. The challenge is that we now have so many tools in the hands of non-expert users. With tools like Google Earth, coupled with so many app developers who get great ideas for new products, new tools are continuously emerging. People start to use them, but then they get into the process and say, ‘It’s harder than I thought.’”

Geospatial Applications are Broad-Based 

As in other disciplines, the technologies and tools for geospatial work continue to evolve—but what makes geospatial skills attainment different than skills attainment in fields like IT, medicine or engineering? Is it that geospatial skills are used in so many industries and not just in one discreet discipline?

“Because geospatial technologies and skills are spread across so many industries and applications, many of our students don't typically start their studies with the idea that they want to become a GIS analyst or a geospatial specialist,” Schuckman says. “Instead, many students come to us after spending some time in their fields. They discover how pervasive geospatial technology is, and that there are new technologies and tools that they want to master.”  

Schuckman says that the types of geospatial skills that students want to learn are “all over the map.” There are demands for image analysis and change detection skills, as well as for geospatial skills involved in automation and in the engagement of field-based drones. Geospatially-powered applications abound in a wide array of industry sectors, including military and defense, retail, remote sensing, fundamentals of mapping and programming skills. 

“What we find is that students bring the applications that they want to learn to us, and many times our teaching topics are specific to the needs of the fields that they’re in,” Schuckman says. “This is what separates the more ‘on demand’ skills training needs that we address in the geospatial program from a more ‘set’ curriculum regime that you would likely find in an engineering program.”

Lending an Ear to Industry

Because students' needs for geospatial skills are varied, there is a continuous adjustment of classroom projects to meet these very specific needs; however, universities like Penn State also have curriculum processes in place that are designed to keep pace with industry needs.

“We have an external advisory board from the industry, not from the university,” Schuckman says. “This board meets annually to review our geospatial curriculum and to make recommendations.”

As a result, the Penn State geospatial curriculum has undergone change to meet the geospatial industry’s changing needs.

“We started with a basic GIS program that offered a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree,” she says. “But over the past 15 years, we have added a number of geospatial specialties that have been driven by industry. Among them are geospatial intelligence, which is used by the defense industry; remote sensing, which is an area that I teach; programming; and web-based applications. We offer these programs online as well as on campus.”

A Focus on Practical Application

One advantage of Penn State’s geospatial program is that everyone on the teaching staff has come from within the industry, so the focus is on practical application of what is taught. “For example, one of our instructors is employed in floodplain management, where geospatial technology is widely used,” Schuckman notes. 

This industry orientation works great for students who want to augment their skills.

“We get some people who are making a career change and they realize they have to add some new skills in the geospatial area,” Schuckman says. “In other cases, we have younger students who recognize how essential geospatial knowledge is. Over all, our students range from individuals who are in their mid-20s to persons who are in their late 50s.”

The Penn Site geospatial staff tries to keep its finger on the pulse by soliciting feedback from students about what they learned and on potential future topics they’re interested in. 

“At the end of a full program, students are equipped – if they are in fields like surveying or engineering – to sit for the national exams,” Schuckman says. “In addition, there might be state exams that are required for an individual to be licensed in a particular locality. We don't specifically prepare students for the state exam certification level tests because there can be wide variation in what different states require. For instance, in Texas, you might need to know about Spanish land grants. In New England, you might need to know about colonial identification systems.”

Where Geospatial Education is Headed

Over the next two or three years, how do you think your geospatial program will change? For Penn State, they’re considering the future of data. 

“Data preparation and management will be strongly emphasized,” Schuckman says. “The growth of Cloud technology is changing geospatial technologies because everything is migrating to the Cloud. With Cloud migration, you begin to encounter challenges with data management.” 

As an example, a single photo taken by a drone might contain 1,000 pixels. If the drone takes a photo every two seconds for a period of 30 minutes, that’s a lot of data to  collect—and to send over the Internet to the Cloud. The same holds true for feedback that is coming in from thousands of sensors simultaneously, or from LiDAR and other types of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that will be more broadly deployed in geospatial technology. The challenges will be how companies can manage all of this data, ensure that it is high-quality, and make sure that the right kinds of data are feeding their applications.

Among the fundamentals of ensuring that data is well managed and of a high quality is eliminating data duplicates, plugging in the holes of missing data, fixing “broken” data, and ensuring that users are only carrying forward the data that they need, which is done by eliminating extraneous data before sending anything to the Cloud.

“Technology is getting easier to use, and this means that more people can use it and apply it in new ways, which is good,” Schuckman says. “But the risk for the geospatial discipline is that the people who begin using it will not have the fundamentals of geospatial science that were required before and that continue to be required today.”

These fundamentals include a sound understanding of coordinate systems and how they work, the ability to read data and to use metadata, expertise in mapping, and the knowledge of data cleaning and preparation techniques to ensure that the highest quality data is being used in particular situations.

“In the pre-Cloud and pre-IoT and social media days, we had control of our data,” Schuckman says. “But now this data is coming from everywhere and can be aggregated in layers of data and metadata over a single map. An individual can fly a drone and collect data, dump it into a file, and port it to a three-point Cloud because there are now tools in the market that make this very easy to do—but how do you know that your data is any good and that you have the right detail in place for your project?”

She continues, “All of this is common sense if you have the geospatial knowledge and experience, but what if you don't even know which questions to ask? It’s a bit like jumping into the ocean and not seeing the rocks underneath. These are the geospatial fundamentals we desire to instill so that users of geospatial technology not only understand how to use the new tools that are available, but that they have the basic wisdom of how to use these tools to get the best results.”