Tuesday, October 16, 2018

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Beyond Mapmaking: Why Geographic Information Science Is a Growing Field

You pick up your phone, search for a local restaurant, and in seconds, you find just the place for dinner — along with a link to directions for getting there. Or maybe you’re checking in on social media, and your post automatically updates your location, complete with a map, or you’re navigating around a large museum or park and using a customized map that tells you exactly where you are and how to get where you want to be.

Welcome to the world of 21st-century mapping technology. Although many of us think of maps as those archaic pieces of paper that are impossible to fold up neatly once they have been opened — or something you might find in grandpa’s glove box — the fact is that almost everyone uses some type of map or mapping technology every day. It’s not just consumers, either;businesses, government agencies, emergency services and other organizations are using geospatial technology and information to solve major problems facing their communities, from traffic congestion to improving responses to natural disasters.

But who makes these maps and collects this data? What was once the realm of cartographers has developed into the field of Geographic Information Science.

What Is Geographic Information Science?

Geographic Information Science or GIS is essentially the process of using computers to collect, analyze, model and present geographic and spatial data. GIS is more than just creating maps, though. For example, using the information collected from multiple sources, including sensors and other smart devices, GIS technicians can study traffic patterns to identify traffic jams and congestion, giving city planners better data to work with in their efforts to ease congestion — and ultimately, provide real-time data to drivers, so they can plan a faster route. GIS might also be used to predict and plan for disasters; they can overlay maps of flood plains from various bodies of water on residential areas to determine which areas are most likely to flood during severe weather. This information can be used to help homeowners prepare but also by insurance companies or emergency services to set coverage rates or determine when to order emergency evacuations. GIS data can be used for a wide range of other purposes as well, including marketing and political research.

GIS professionals, most of whom have a master’s degree in the field, use computer software to collect and analyze data. This might include digitizing existing maps, entering information about latitude and longitude into files and turning satellite and aerial images into data. By analyzing this data, they can create models and maps for various purposes. While many work for a specific agency creating maps for internal use — for example, working with a restaurant chain to provide maps of potential locations based on customer data, traffic patterns and available space, a growing number of GIS professionals are moving into the consumer space, creating maps for websites and mobile applications. Any time you use an app that offers real time updates based on your location, it’s likely that a GIS expert was involved in its development.

Why GIS Is So Important Today

GIS is a rapidly growing field. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that job growth in this field is expected be much faster than average between now and 2026, at 19 percent. While industries that traditionally seek GIS expertise, including transportation, utilities, engineering, surveying, construction, archaeology and the government and military, will continue to hire GIS graduates, the explosion of location-based services means that many other industries are beginning to see the value of GIS as well.


In fact, the increase in mobility, big data and demand for real-time data is perhaps the biggest driving factor in the growth of the GIS field. Not only are application developers increasingly adding mapping and spatial data into their applications, but companies are using information collected from everything from satellite imagery to crowd-sourced data and IoT sensor information to learn more than ever before about their customers and operations. This expands the capabilities of GIS into places it’s ever been before while also giving organizations the information they need to provide better experiences, streamline operations and in some cases, improve the health and safety of our communities.

While you might think nothing of using Google Maps on your phone to find the best place to grab a taco nearby, the fact is that a lot of work and analysis has gone in to making that information so easy to find. If you have experience in computers and want to use your data modeling and analysis skills to provide a service to society, GIS might be the field for you.

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