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Monday, April 27, 2015

Working in Geospatial: Skills Stay the Same, but the Toolset Changes

Being a Handy(wo)man

Image by Karenne Sylvester
under under CC-BY-2.0 
Lyzi Diamond of Mapbox tweeted this last week:
Working in geospatial tech is like being a handy(wo)man. Skills stay the same, but the toolset changes with technology. (h/t @Shawn_Goulet)
I responded:
Prepare students accordingly! #gised  
This is not a new idea to me. My first days of college included "The Aims of Education" address. The tradition at the University of Chicago is that incoming students listen patiently to the lecture and then go back to their residential houses to discuss it. I'm sure we didn't come to any conclusions about what the aims of education were, but we did get the idea in our heads that it was a topic to be pondered for a lifetime.

I concluded at the ripe old age of 25 that what I learned in college and grad school was to read, write and think. I didn't choose those terms, John Wilson of Arthur D. Little did. He was a senior consultant, who attended the same college. When he called me to his office he informed me he'd picked me, an intern, for a project because he knew I had those skills. Those skills, I found, were all I had to create a happy life and career for myself. As I've moved through my career, I've realized all the jobs I ever had came down to reading, writing and thinking, though I'd broaden writing to "communicating" since I've done a lot of speaking, too. The one addition I'd make is to note that the technology and the topics to which I apply them have changed.

Putting Theory into Practice in 2007

I had my first opportunity to put this vision of education into practice when I joined the advisory board for the Penn State MGIS program. We helped craft the original curriculum and come together regularly to update it. I voiced the opinion early on that our students should touch more than one piece of software during their studies. While this request had other implications, I felt it as important for students practice learning new software. When the opportunity presented itself, I joined the MGIS faculty and offered a course called Comparative GIS. The goals focused on evaluating GIS tools, that is, finding the right tool for the job, but also called upon students to learn five different desktop GIS packages (this was 2007-2011) in 10 weeks.

The course was hard. There was frustration and gnashing of teeth. But all of my students, from super programmer (now a senior programmer at the Forest Service) to the job switcher moving out of a career as a dental hygienist, all learned to learn new software. They learned they had the basic skills and could transfer them to next iteration of the software or a new package.

  • If you are a GIS instructor, do your students have that skill? The confidence to apply it?
  • If you are a hiring manager, is this a valuable skill?
  • If you are a manager of GIS people, can your staff learn and then evaluate a new tool?

Putting Theory into Practice in 2015

Quite a bit has changed in teaching and learning GIS since 2007. There are a variety of videos, tutorials, MOOCs, books and other resources available to learn both the basics and how to use a new technology. For example, a new book on QGIS is getting a lot of buzz. (Here's interesting take from one of the authors).

More than ever, we need to equip students with the basics and then be sure they can take those basics to other technologies. Frankly it should not matter if learners start on ArcGIS Online, CartoDB, Mapbox, QGIS or another platform. The proof of mastery may be frictionlessly transferring those basics to a new technology environment.