29 October, 2009
The discussion about the future of the GIS ‘profession’ has flared up in recent days – see the comments from Sean Gorman, Steven Feldman (well, citing me) and Don Meltz among others. My personal perspective is about the educational aspect of this debate.
I’ve been teaching GIS since 1995, and been involved in the MSc in GIS at UCL since 1998 – teaching on it since 2001. Around 1994 I was contemplating the excellent MSc in GIS programme in Edinburgh, though I opted to continue with my own mix of geography and computer science, which turned out to be great in the end – but I can say that I have been following the trends in GIS education for quite a while.
Based on this experience, I would argue that the motivation for studying an MSc in GIS over the past 20 years was to get the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’. I use ARC/INFO as a metaphor – you can replace it with any other package, but ARC/INFO was the de facto package for teaching GIS (and its predecessor ArcGIS is today), so it is suitable shorthand. What I mean by that is that for a long time GIS packages were hard to use and required a significant amount of training in order to operate successfully. Even if a fairly simple map was needed, the level of technical knowledge and the number of steps required were quite significant. So employers, who mostly wanted someone who could make them maps, recruited people who gained skills in operating the complex packages that allow the production of maps.
The ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era included an interesting dissonance – the universities were telling themselves that they were teaching the principles of GIScience but the students were mostly interested in learning how to operate a GIS at a proficient level to get a job. I’ve seen and talked with enough students to recognise that many of them, in their daily jobs, rarely used the spatial statistical analysis that we were teaching and they mostly worked at ‘taming the beast’, which GIS was.
As expected, at UCL there was always a group that was especially interested in the principles of GIScience and that continued their studies beyond the MSc. But they are never the majority of the cohort.
The model worked well for everyone – universities were teaching GIS by a combination of principles and training of specific packages and the students found jobs at the end and joined GIS departments in different organisations.
The disruption that changed this arrangement started in the late 1990s, with Oracle Spatial starting to show that GIS can be integrated in mainstream products. The whole process accelerated around 2005 with the emergence of GeoWeb, Free and Open Source GIS (FOSS GIS) and the whole range of applications that come with it. Basically, you don’t need a licence any more. More and more employers (even GIS consultancies) are not recruiting from GIS education programmes – they are taking computing professionals and teaching them the GIS skills. Going through an MSc in GIS to be proficient with a tool is not necessary.
So in an era in which you don’t need a licence to join the party, what is the MSc in GIS for?
The answer is that it can be the time when you focus on principles and on improving specific skills. Personally, that was my route to education. I started working in GIS software development without much more than high school education in 1988. After hearing people around me talking about registers, bugs, polygons and databases I was convinced that I must understand these principles properly. So I went for a degree that provided me with the knowledge. In the same way, I would expect that MSc programmes cater for the needs of people who gain some practical experience with operating geospatial technologies and want to learn the principles or become specialists in specific aspects of these systems.
We already see people doing the MSc while working with GIS – currently studying an MSc by distance learning or in the evening is very popular and I expect that this will continue. However, the definition of what is covered by GIS must be extended – it should include everything from Bing Maps API to PostGIS to ArcGIS.
I can also see the need for specialised courses – maybe to focus on the technical development of geospatial technologies or maybe on spatial statistical analysis for those who want to become geographical information analysts. I would also expect much more integration of GIS with other fields of study where it is taught as a tool – just look at the many MSc programmes that currently include GIS. I’m already finding myself teaching students of urban design, development planning or asset management.
All in all, I’m not going to feel sorry that the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era is coming to its end.
1 October, 2008
The AGI GeoCommunity ’08 is over – and it was a great conference. Building on the success of last year, the conference this year was packed with good papers and with 600 delegates. I found the papers from Joanna Cook, of Oxford Archaeology, about the use of Open Source GIS as the main set of products in a business environment, and from Nick Black, of CloudMade, on Crowd Sourced Geographical Information especially interesting.
What is especially good about the AGI in general, and the conference in particular, is that unlike other forums that cater for a narrow audience (say mainly neogeographers in Where 2.0, or academics in GISRUK), the AGI is a good forum where you can see vendors, commercial providers, veterans and new users all coming together to talk about different aspects of GI. Even if they disagree about various issues such as what is important, having the forum for the debate is what makes this conference so valuable Just look at the blogs of Ed, Adena, Joanna, Andy and Steven for such a debate to see that there are issues that people will argue about quite fiercely – which is a sign of a great conference.
I’m especially pleased with the success this year of bringing in people from the academic community who presented papers and attended the conference. This interaction is very significant as, through our teaching programmes, we are actually training the people who will join this crowd in the future, and we should keep an eye on the trends and needs of the sector.
For example, one of my conclusions from the conference is that the existing ‘business model’ of the M.Sc. in GIS programmes, which was, inherently, ‘we’ll train you in using [ArcGIS|Mapinfo|other package] so you can get a job’, is over. The industry is diverging, and the needs are changing. Being a GI professional is not about operating a GIS package.
We should now highlight the principles of manipulating geographical information, and, as Adena Schutzberg commented during the debate, train people how to ask the right questions, and to answer the most important ‘So what?’ question about the analyses that they are producing.
We should also encourage our students to participate in forums, like the AGI, so they continue to learn about their changing world.