I’m a…. the GIS Profession in One Word

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

When I think about the debate about whether or not GIS is a profession, one aspect that pokes at me is the inability to succinctly sum up the answer to the question, “What do you do?” in one word.  

When I think about professions, I think about the one word descriptions that tidily sum up the entire field.  People in those professions can provide such terse answers as “I’m a doctor, a planner, a programmer, an architect, and so forth.”  

For the GIS field, not so.

A typical conversation about what a GIS professional does

A typical exchange for many of us probably goes something like this:

Q. What do you do?

A. I work in GIS

Q. Um, GIS?  What’s that?

A. It stands for Geographic Information Systems.

Q. Um, what’s that?

A. Oh, it’s sort of like Google Maps.

Of course, the last answer seems to be every GIS professional’s lazy and not at all accurate comparison which we all know we shouldn’t use but we do it anyways since it seems to be the only response that makes the confusion in people’s eyes go away.

Since I love the data visualization side of GIS the most and I really want to answer with, “I’m a…”, my conversations usually go like this:

Q. What do you do?

A. I’m a cartographer

Q. Oh, that’s great. What kind of photos do you take?

A. No, not a photographer. I am an CARTOgrapher.

Q. Um, what’s a cartographer?

A. Uh, I make maps.

So, what’s a good one word description of what we do?  

My choice would be: geospatialist.

Yes, that isn’t going to clarify what you do but it seems like no matter how one describes what a GIS professional does, there is going to be confusion.

Name That GIS Profession

A quick survey was offered to see what other descriptors GIS professionals tend to used when asked the questions, “What do you do?”.  

There were 71 responses in all, offer a colorful variety of answers.  The most common answers tended to work the word map in them: map-maker, I make maps, mapper, etc.    

Cartographer ran a closed second in terms of popularity, although based on my own and the experience of others, this answered is almost as confusing as answering, “I do GIS”.

A variety of ways to describe what a GIS professional does

My favourite conversation thus far
Me: “I’m a cartographer”
Them: “A car… photographer?” *confused head tilt* “You must really like cars then”
Me: *facepalm*

Some tongue-in-cheek answers (and some probably more serious) included Locationologist, geoanalyser, geoanalyticvisualization, and geoinformer.

The respondent that answered with geoanalyticvisualization (which was the longest one word answer) explains, “I believe I just coined a new word, but, hey, there is no one word, nor even 20 words, that describe what we do. And, what “WE” do differs from job to job, place to place. When people ask me what GIS is, I say “where graphics meets programming meets engineering.”

GIS as a career is not quickly explained

Robert Guinness also weighed in that GIS has not reached the point where one word can work:

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think this profession is established enough to have one word that is universally understood and encompasses everyone in the field.

I think your suggestion, geospatialist, is a good one, but I would prefer just using two readily understood words, instead of one “made up” word.

For example, if you’re a programmer working on GIS applications, “geospatial programmer” could be a good option. If you mainly analyze geospatial data, then “geospatial analyst” would be a good option, etc.

GIS professionals are geographers

Some respondents take that answer back to the very basic nature of what they do: geographer.

From one respondent:

“This term gives a broader sense to what we do – we are the modern day explorers, spatial architects, planners, environmentalists, seafarers, and masters of the earth sciences and how humans affect the earth. If a GIS professional does not have geography or other earth science at least as a minor from college, he or she is just an IT professional.”

In a side dialogue via the GIS and Geography LinkedIn group, Antti Mansikka explained: “Roger Tomlinson has been called the father of GIS. He himself suggested it to be an appropriate word, since he was the one having all the fun in giving birth to GIS.

In the 2007 Esri User Conference (San Diego, CA) he delivered a speech to the Special Award of GIS winners. He started his speech by these words: “Hello, I’m Roger Tomlinson and I’m a geographer”.

Since then if I’m asked what do I do in one word, the answer has been very clear.”

Rob Mohan (also via LinkedIn) agreed with this approach:

“I also have started using the term Geographer, and then go on to tell what I am currently working on because there is either a blank stare or followup question along the lines of “Well what does that mean?” ~ I am a Geographer and am currently mapping waste water infrastructure, both above ground and subterranean.

To me that sounds a lot better and gives more correct information than saying “I am a GIS Analyst/Tech and make maps.”

What People Think I Do, GIS Edition

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This article was originally written on September 26, 2014 and has since been updated

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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.

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