5 Ways GIS Users Can Expand Their Geospatial Skills

Caitlin Dempsey


Whether you are new to the field of GIS or a decades-long veteran, continuously working to improve your geospatial skills should be a lifelong pursuit. Listed here are five practical strategies that GIS users can adopt to further develop their capabilities and grow with the geospatial industry.

1. Learn Something Outside of Your Comfort Zone

If you have a habit to turning to the same GIS software over and over again, you should challenge yourself to explore a wider range of mapping and software tools.

Always using proprietary GIS? Try using QGIS, a free and open source suite of GIS software.  As a popular alternative to commercial GIS packages, users of QGIS have developed plenty of resources and tutorials to help you learn this software.

On the flip side, if you have never used Esri’s ArcGIS software, the company offers a low cost personal use option for home based (i.e. noncommercial) use of its ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced along with options to include many of the more popular extensions for $100 per year.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

These are just two of the more popular GIS choices but the list of open source and commercial options is long.

2. Participate in Extended Learning

As a GIS professional, professional development is a lifelong practice.  Software, data options, and geospatial technologies are always advancing.  Keeping up with the plethora of tools can be daunting so participating in extended learning options is essential.  Fortunately, there are plenty of free learning options out there.  

Signing up for a GIS MOOC is a great way to participate in a more intensive GIS educational course.  There are a few educational and vendor options that offer periodic MOOCs.  Esri offers several MOOCs that are offered a couple times of year each.  MOOC List offers a catalog of upcoming GIS related MOOCs.

3. Participate in a Geospatial Conversation

Be a more active voice in the GIS community.  Each week, #gischat is held on X/Twitter to provide interested participants with a platform to discuss and share anything related to GIS.  

Started by X/Twitter user Emily, a ten years ago, the discussion session is held each Wednesday for an hour at 12 pm PST (1 pm MST, 2 pm CST, 3 pm EST, -800 GMT).  Participation is open to anyone using the #gischat hashtag.  Popular GIS influencer Kate Berg now hosts the sessions each week.

More ideas on how to participate in the global GIS community can be found in the Networking in GIS: Peer-to-Peer Support in the GIS Community article.

4. Learn a New Online Mapping Tool

There is a cornucopia of free and easy to learn mapping tools you can experiment with.  These tools can come in handy for quick visualization tasks or for creating story maps.  Just a couple of options are:

Timeline.js and Storymap.js: Developed by Knight Lab,  timeline.js is an open-source tools that allows users the ability to quickly embed content from images, Twitter, Flickr, Google Maps, YouTube, and Vine in order to create a time-based story line. Knight Lab’s StoryMap JS is a easy to use tool for digital story telling from a geographic view.

Tableau Public: Tableau Public is the free version of a tool which allows visitors to create dynamic data visualizations quickly and embed them within a web page.  Users can create develop data story maps using a combination of interactive graphs, tables, and maps.

5. Become a Geospatial Humanitarian

Put your geospatial skills to good use by participating in a digital humanitarian project.  There are plenty of organizations that would welcome your involvement.

Zooniverse offers a host of crowdsourced projects including several mapping ones.  Mapping Change seeks citizen scientists to help create searchable, public atlas showing where animals, plants, and fungi have been found and collected.  

Data that is transcribed will become part of the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas, the permanent digital record of the Bell Museum of Natural History’s collections.   The Old Weather Project is building a database of historical weather information extracted through crowdsourced efforts.

A globe view of the Earth with lines showing ship tracks.
Climate reconstruction for 1911 based on a limited number of weather observations from ship log books.

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) is a nonprofit that works to create provide free, detailed and up-to-date maps that is then supplied to government and humanitarian organizations working to provide economic development support and emergency response to regions in need around the world.

Screenshot of a crowd-sourced public transportation map for Managua, Nicaragua.
Crowd-sourced public transportation map for Managua, Nicaragua.

This article was originally written on December 18, 2016 and has since been updated.

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.