GIS stands for geographic information science — which is quite different from geography. GIS professionals build, maintain and apply mapping systems to allow us to more accurately (and more accessibly) see and navigate the world around us. Though the GIS industry was relatively small even a decade ago, these days it is growing exponentially — and it is important to understand why, especially if you are on the hunt for a lucrative new career.
What GIS Really Is
GIS and geography aren’t identical — but they are related. Geography is the study of the physical features of the earth, and in the course of study, geographers (and related scientists) produce overwhelming amounts of data. Geographic information science is the analysis and application of that data to understand patterns in geography and develop applications that make such data easier for everyone to comprehend.
GIS manifests in four discrete ways: data, maps, analysis and applications. Using proffered spatial information, GIS can produce datasets that organize material in comprehensible ways. Often, the data is applied to GIS maps, which geographically explain insights gleaned from collected data. GIS maps are developed to be shared easily for maximum impact. GIS’s spatial analysis facilitates the evaluation of data, leading to new perspectives and better decision making. Finally, applications built from GIS can provide a focused user experience based on location data.
In truth, GIS isn’t new. Researchers in dozens of fields have used GIS for decades to better understand various types of data driven by geography. For example, pathologists studying disease might use GIS to track the spread of an epidemic from a small tropical village to major global metropolises. However, advances in GIS tools and equipment make this data science more accessible than ever before, meaning more people can gain from GIS’s insights.
While in the past, GIS might have been exclusive to certain realms of academia, today GIS is used across a broad spectrum of industries, including:
- Health. Tracking disease, identifying vulnerable populations, building more impactful health services programs, etc.
- Retail. Understanding where customers live, work and shop, reviewing driving reasons behind purchases, determining optimal store locations, etc.
- Manufacturing. Creating real-time product information for suppliers and clients, visualizing accurate supply chain workflows, increasing awareness of market behavior, etc.
- Sustainability. Recognizing environments with greater need, measuring environmental impact of various factors, applying smarter techniques and technologies to achieve sustainability goals, etc.
Why GIS Is Becoming Popular
Considering the wealth of uses for GIS, it should hardly be surprising that GIS is gaining popularity at a respectable clip. However, this science is gaining a lion’s share of its media coverage from one unique application: autonomous vehicles. Driverless cars need extensive maps to function; though the cars are equipped with sensors to detect changes in the environment, they primarily drive using information from previously generated maps of urban areas. Thus, all autonomous vehicle manufacturers are investing heavily in GIS. Because interest in autonomous vehicles has only grown, it makes sense that opportunities for GIS professionals will continue to increase in the coming decades.
How to Get Into GIS
Like most careers in tech-related sciences — think: programming, software development, etc. — education isn’t necessary, but it is preferred. Thus, if you are eager to find a lucrative career in GIS, you should strongly consider starting by pursuing a GIS master’s online. These programs are more flexible than traditional, on-campus master’s programs, meaning you can likely gain admittance without coming from a geography or data science background — though, having such experience would benefit you in your studies and GIS career.
Throughout your studies, you should be experimenting with GIS software. Esri products are by far the most popular in the current commercial market, but you should also explore open-source options like QGIS. To stand out during the job hunt, you might also begin learning scripting languages, especially Python, which is used in both Esri products and QGIS. You should stay in touch with emerging GIS qualifications through GIS blogs and newsletters as well as by regularly reviewing GIS job ads, which often state what skills and knowledge are in demand.
Finally, it is critical that you gain real-world GIS experience before you try to find a paying job. Internships will help you apply your GIS knowledge to real situations, proving that you are qualified to hold GIS positions. You can find available internships through your school’s career services department or else through your city’s urban planning and development agencies.