Words with a GIS Education Guru

If anybody knows how an online GIS degree can help a career, it’s Michael Gould, Ph.D., the director of education for international GIS technology firm, ESRI.

American Sentinel University recently asked Gould a few questions about GIS, educational career paths and the future of this technology.

Why is GIS a lucrative career decision right now?

The proliferation of GPS receivers and simple geovisualization applications like Google Maps has opened millions of peoples’ eyes to the possibilities of making decisions based on geographic factors. This being true, when was the last time you saw a job ad for a position requiring GPS or Google Maps experience? ESRI’s GIS technology covers the complete range from similar ‘consumer’ applications to enterprise GIS solutions for major companies, government ministries, etc. The job market for people who know about these larger GIS deployments is quite strong. I recently heard an estimate of some 2,000 open GIS positions in the US, mainly in the regions of Washington D.C., Colorado and California. As more geoprocessing functionality moves to Web, the demand for true GIS professionals to keep all these sites running will be even stronger.

What is the future of GIS technology?

There are two aspects of the future of GIS that are rather certain. One is the ubiquity of GIS tools, from a monolithic system years ago to a collection of modules, on clients and servers, that are interconnected. This means that students will find it difficult to avoid GIS in the near future: it will be in their laptops, cars, and phones. A simple application on a cell phone which finds the correct bus that is nearest and going to the correct place, is actually driven by complex GIS on the server side. In the future the application will be smaller, faster, and more functional, and the server will be faster and more powerful.

Another future aspect is that GIS will continue to contribute, more visibly, to the greening of our inhabited world. Both the users and the developers of GIS software are seeing to that. The contributions may be small individually; however the overall effect is noticeable. This will include access to more and better quality satellite images, better algorithms for detecting and measuring changes on Earth, and better social media capabilities to be able to take better advantage of expert knowledge of multiple users.

What type of person would do well in a GIS career?

GIS specialists tend to have a passion for helping make the world a better place, and this takes higher priority than merely making money. They tend to have a unique mix of environmental or geographic knowledge and curiosity, as well as technical knowledge in terms of GIS methodology or programming.

What can students currently enrolled in a GIS degree program do to enhance their resume?

Technical skills including programming always help, and getting involved any sort of real-world GIS project (not just small problems seen in the classroom) will distinguish a candidate. A masters degree in a certain specialty which applies or develops GIS technology is also recommended.

What are companies looking for in GIS candidates?

Technical skills; passion for geographic problem solving; and of course soft skills such as teamwork, oral presentation and writing abilities.  Again the graduate degree tends to strengthen these soft skills.

What software programs should they be knowledgeable in?

That depends on the job position Some positions require database management system experience, others Java, python or C# programming, or programming techniques such as agile or scrum. Of course many positions require full working knowledge of the ArcGIS platform. Especially popular or in demand are candidates with knowledge in Web application development environments i.e. Silverlight, Flex; and mobile environments i.e. Android, iOS, Windows Phone 7.

Talk about why GIS is important for our society.

Society is affected by a whole host of negative factors, from climate change to political instability to lack of access to water and education. How can the average person fight back?  One way is by accessing information describing the Earth and its multiple relationships, changes and their consequences, and getting better informed. A decade ago GIS technology was only for a few experts, whereas today anyone with access to the Web now has access not only to geodata but also to geoprocessing services and community sharing mechanisms on the cloud. GIS has opened up, providing many popular application-programming interfaces (APIs) allowing people with basic informatics skills to mashup disparate services and datasets and to create new meaning, new knowledge, even new democratic voices. Cloud-based GIS is allowing more people, from within their homes or classrooms, to know more about the world, its immediate changes, its relations. This knowledge allows these people to be better prepared to effect change, rather than merely be affected by change, in the world. This is part of the vision of geodesign: collaborating online to produce a better world.

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