Friday, May 1, 2009

Future of GIS Analysts, Part 1

A question occurred to me as a result of a comment made by David Bouwman on Twitter. Folks were congratulating James Fee, who had just been offered an opportunity to teach GIS at the Arizona State University masters program.
Teach them that "GIS Analyst" will be a rare job in 10 years - just like "Database Analyst" is today.
My question(s): what do we mean by GIS Analyst in this context - what functions do they provide today that will be unnecessary or absorbed by other jobs? My official title is something like GIS analyst, though this kind of talk might be more disconcerting if I hadn't already oriented my career towards application development. But I know people I work with, professors, and certainly students today would be interested in discovering if this was in fact the case. If we were to properly investigate this matter, lets consider first what GIS analysts (which we can probably group with specialists, technicians, etc) do that makes them necessary today, and then, in part two, we can examine what that role might look like - if it exists at all - in the future. Here is a quick list of the roles I've seen played by GIS analysts:
  1. Map production: Your standard cartography work. Organizing the layers, layouts, titles, etc into an aesthetically pleasing package and either plotting/printing it off, or, more recently, publishing it as a service.
  2. Requirements gathering: Client communication, identifying potential solutions from user stories, project specification and some project management.
  3. Feature creation and maintenance: Gathering and organizing data from disparate sources, digitizing/COGO work. Associated documentation/metadata probably falls in here too.
  4. General IT/helpdesk support: Particularly the case when it is a small firm without a real IT department or person, or if that person/department is swamped, or doesn't know anything about GIS software, or IT's grasp on individual departments is tenuous.
  5. Database/content management: Organizing databases, particularly ESRI geodatabases - what belongs in a given dataset, should it be part of the network, etc. File management of documentation, supplementary data.
  6. Minor automation tasks: Modelbuilder, Python, VBA stuff. Almost any programming task where not knowing the basics of object oriented programming is not much of a hindrance (though it makes for terrible code).
I'm missing probably a hundred more things analysts do and I'd like to invite everyone to help me add to the list.


geographygeek said...

Interesting post. I think the spatial analysis aspect could also be one of the duties of a GIS analyst (looking for patterns, performing spatial statistics). Also, the interpretation of the results of the analysis is an important role that GIS analysts may play. Imagery data (interpolating rasters, raster calculation, etc) is also another aspect of a GIS Analyst role.

Ben R said...

In my mind I had grouped a lot of the spatial analysis in with the creation of new geodata (my feature creation bullet), but it probably should be its own explicit group.

There is a lot more to it than just digitizing - you have to pick the right tools and know the statistical significance of each.

Analyzing the data afterward though I hadn't thought of. I'm going to be sure to include that in part two.

Kinda the problem with being so close to the work, you don't think of the obvious things that are happening because it is just second nature.

KindaSpatial said...

I know a lot of RS people will frown on this, but I think there is now more integration of image and RS data analysis in the GIS/geospatial analysts positions out there. Whether it is feature extraction, surface generation, classification, etc there often isn't money for a stand alone remote sensing analyst.

When you talk about the future I would like to see something about the next level of data creation and analysis in the geospatial arena such as 3D data and hyperlocal scales of data. It isn't truly a role in the majority of GIS Analyst positions currently, but we are starting to deal with this, especially in urban areas, but it is just the beginning.

Justin C. Houk said...

I too saw that tweet and felt a twinge of discomfort. Having worked as a GIS analyst for a few years now I can see where dave is coming from but can't really agree.

Much of what I do is geospatial problem solving for folks that don't have the same interdisciplinary training. It's very difficult to see how a developer sitting in a room 2000 miles away can understand specific needs enough to solve those problems.

Yes, everyone needs to pave roads and route emergency services. With people like Dave around those tasks should get much easier. Unless current trends in education change, it's though to see the average person construct there own environmental model out of the web. Even in 10 years.

Google maps and VE will help increase awareness some. I don't see GIS analysts getting rare, I see the need for them increasing as people become more informed.