Geography, once charted through paper maps and primitive measuring tools, involves the study of the earth’s physical features and its atmosphere. Early geographers learned to mark points on a map if they suspected a cluster effect in an epidemic, for example, or split maps to form contours in order to distinguish vegetation from water sources.
These were all things deeply tied to human activity. But the work was labor-intensive with no database linking locations to information that could be used to help prevent or solve societal problems.
A Brief History of GIS: Celebrating a Half Century
It wasn’t until the 1960s that geographic information systems (GIS) was discovered by Roger Tomlinson, a British-born geographer who convinced the Canadian government that computers could be used to automate map analysis. Known today as “the father of GIS,” Tomlinson is considered both an inventor and proponent of GIS as a recognized field. (He died in 2014 at the age of 80).
Over time, GIS was used in nuclear weapon research, urban planning and through local government applications. The Census Bureau found GIS was a good way to manage data, as did the U.S. Forest Service, monitoring lands and forest growth for planning purposes.
Modern GIS evolved into a broad term to describe the science of new and different technologies, processes and methods that uses location as its key index variable to tie information together. Think satellites, aircraft, land surveys, real estate, or any digital information application that helps you find places and things.
Today, GIS forms the foundation for a series of geospatial technologies, including remote sensing (RS) and global positioning systems (GPS). Energy companies use GIS as a big part of their exploration and extraction, as do utilities, telecommunications and transportation to better manage their assets and reduce costs. “Smart” city initiatives allow sharing of transportation data to address problems from congestion to road closings.
On a global scale, the “power of mapping” improves communication through better data, helps keep us safer, saves lives, and allows users to make more informed decisions.
Esri, Inc. and the “Science of Where”
Esri, Inc., a California-based company that helps other companies solve problems, is the world’s leading provider of the software tool that people use for GIS. About 350,000 organizations around the globe rely on their technology and licenses. Researchers use the software to evaluate and map data to create new theories; students use it for classroom assignments, and administrators use it to monitor their facilities and assets.
David DiBiase, Director of Education Industry Solutions at Esri, says this spring his company is rolling out a brand campaign called the “Science of Where” to help guide students toward possible careers in geospatial science. Esri has been providing outreach to K-12 teachers for more than two decades, attending conferences and introducing their technology by explaining what it can do to enrich education through classroom application.
DiBiase says he generally starts with the basics.
“Nearly everyone has a smart phone,” he says. “You see a map on your phone with a pin attached and a route plotted to your destination. That’s a very elementary type of digital geography. What GIS does is expand on that through sophisticated analysis, and what Esri does is build the technologies that advance this “Science of Where.”
In fact, Esri specializes in building the world’s most powerful mapping and spatial analytics software, called ArcGIS. It applies the “Science of Where” to connect everyone, everywhere through a common visual language, revealing deeper insight into data. (For details, visit www.esri.com/about). But it’s through their education initiative that DiBiase says GIS is supporting project-based learning, specifically in the STEM context. The company commits millions of dollars each year by donating software to schools and helping teachers insert GIS activities into their existing curriculums. Free, standards-based mapping activities allow students to learn content in earth systems science, U.S. History and human geography.
The ConnectED initiative is a nationwide effort to immerse K-12 students in digital learning that involves Esri, along with other prominent tech companies. As its contribution to ConnectED, Esri offers its cloud-based mapping system ArcGIS Online at no cost to every K-12 school in the nation, about 115,000 schools overall. The goal is to encourage more youth to pursue education and careers within the STEM fields. (For more information on Esri educational resources and the outreach school programs they provide, visit their website at www.connectedesri.com.
The initiative appears to be working well. It has raised awareness of GIS, its connection with STEM education, and brought to light what’s on the horizon in potential career paths for the next century.
Two decades ago, the most common question Esri’s Education Outreach team received among educators was, “What is GIS?” Today, the most common response is “So you’re the GIS guys. Do you have curriculums that I can use in my classroom?”
The answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
“We’re doing this not just in geography,” says DiBiase, “but in other subjects like literature and history. All along, innovative educators and early adopters have been enthused about GIS. But they were a relatively small number. That’s changing now. There’s more willingness to adopt GIS into mainstream classrooms.”
Within higher education, about a quarter million students around the world use Esri technology, creating interactive web maps and apps, and sharing the information with other students for collaborative projects.
Careers in GIS: Geography + Technology = Wow
In terms of employment, the U.S. Department of Labor identifies GIS as a high-growth technology field, comparable to nano-tech and bio-tech. Growth in the specialized field of geospatial jobs, including cartographers (map-makers) and photogrammetrists (specialized map-makers who use technology to build models that help create the maps) is projected to outpace other occupations by 22 percent between 2010 and 2020. More than 420,000 geospatial professionals were employed in the U.S. by 2010, with an additional 150,000 expected by 2020. Two geospatial occupations in particular, geographic information scientists and technologists, and GIS technicians, account for the largest share of those employment estimates.
Not only is this occupational field growing, but it will help prepare the next generation workforce to apply geography and its advanced cousin, geospatial science, to find solutions to problems from climate change to national security.
Plus it’s just plain fun says David DiBiase, explaining that geography plus technology equals a “wow” factor.
“The technology itself is intriguing. Yes it’s complicated, but in a good way. That means there is always something new to learn because the field is advancing so rapidly. You also tend to work in groups so you’re not isolated. And what you work on – those big issues that matter – can be very rewarding.”
VirtualJobShadow.com, profiles several occupations in geosciences, including app developers, climate scientists, GIS managers, conservationists and volcanologists. Each video provides a day-in-the-life career description, job duties, future outlook, required education, earnings, and additional helpful links. (Visit www.virtualjobshadow.com for details).
GIS Can Change the World
According to Jack Dangermond, President and co-founder of Esri, Inc. there are five current trends in GIS that are literally changing the world as we know it. We’re now at a stage, he explains, in which 3-D visualized information on the web is easily shared, followed by connectedness and collaboration, stretching the boundaries of geography as never before.
What does that mean for the future?
GIS is no longer limited to specialty markets like government, utilities, gas and oil. Now retailers and tech start-ups are using the technology for services-based GIS to learn more about and connect to consumers.
Advanced analytics are helping companies decide where, when, and why to build new stores through GIS mapping.
Big data can translate to business insights into our environment and human behavior because enterprises can now access images from space to capture vast amounts of information.
Organizations and consumers have “real-time” interconnection on everything from smart phones to social media feeds. That means we’re connected faster than ever before.
GIS allows instant mobility for consumers and businesses alike. Simpler, user-friendly experiences now allow everyone with a device to explore whatever they choose, wherever they choose, while data can be transferred to the cloud for storage and analysis.
For current students and educators, it’s increasingly apparent that gaining 21st century technical skills are needed to tackle local, regional and global challenges, with GIS as a proven method. That’s how today’s students will engage in problem-solving designed to bring about positive change in industries and in society as a whole.
And that, says David DiBiase, is what makes geography and the “Science of Where” a fun, exciting and worthwhile career to pursue.
About Esri, Inc.
Located in Redlands, CA, Esri. Inc. is the world’s foremost developer of geographic information systems (GIS). Using an ArcGIS platform for location intelligence, its software is deployed in more than 350,000 organizations worldwide, most national governments, 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and more than 7,000 colleges and universities. Visit the site at www.esri.com/arcgis.
VirtualJobShadow.com provides career exploration for K-12, post-secondary institutions and workforce development programs nationwide. It is used throughout the country for career readiness and planning in school districts, colleges, career centers and workforce agencies, offering an interactive, practical approach with multiple resources for work-based learning and career planning. Visit us at www.virtualjobshadow.com.
Sources: Interview with David DiBiase, Dir. Of Education, Esri, Inc. 3/23/17; Esri.com; www.wikipedia.org “Geo Information Systems,”; www.geoawesomeness.com “Five GIS Trends Changing the World,” 01/01/17; YouTube, “The Science of Where,” 2/12/17; www.statescoop.com, “WAZE, Esri Bring 65 Million Traffic Sensors to Aspiring Smart Cities,” 10/13/16; ARCNews Fall, 2012 “50th Anniversary of GIS”; ARCNews Summer 2012, “Strengthening the GIS Profession.”
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