The Geography Behind Being a GIS Professional

Mark Altaweel


  • GIS often involves technical knowledge, but many GIS specialists lack theoretical knowledge.
  • However, combining concepts from geography gives GIS specialists career advantages.
  • Even after long periods away from GIS, one can more easily re-engage with GIS by having geographic knowledge.

As GIS tools have become more sophisticated, as well as easier to use over the last few decades, GIS has become less of a geographer’s tool and more as a general tool that has enabled many to engage with its benefits. While there is nothing wrong with this, we should also not forget that the discipline of geography can offer major advantages to GIS specialists, particularly in understanding why data might be appropriate in addressing given problems.

In a recent GIS podcast, Sarah Taigel discusses how being a professional geographer can provide key advantages to using GIS analysis.

Geography Provides Insight

Increasingly, GIS has become more like any other IT tool, where technical knowledge is key to understanding and applying functionality in analysis. However, to better understand if given approaches are appropriate, and to engage with the data itself, that is how and why it might be used and collected, the discipline of geography can provide key insight.

In particular, geography provides direction and justification for given data to be collected and provides that explanation to clients that explains how data could benefit given problems with geographic theory. A key advantage for geographers who use GIS is they can better understand shortcoming in data and tools in addressing given problems.

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Technical knowledge could allow you to follow a specification desired by clients but it may not easily identify flaws in the data or even what a client might be requesting, where often clients are also not clear on what they want.

Geographers often take a perspective by looking at a location and its associated data, but they can also ask relevant questions and assess if the correct answer is present in the data layers used in GIS analysis. For instance, in a hydrologic model, rather than simply using the data present, a geographer could check to make sure variables such as groundwater, surface run-off, vegetation, and weather data are incorporated in to the analysis.[1]

Using Geography to Engage with Stakeholders

Often, for GIS problems, professionals need to engage with the public and only engaging with the  data that is before an analyst may not be enough. Asking the right questions and engaging with the public and stakeholders could be important for creating the most appropriate tools.

As an example, in Taigel’s own work, creating applications that gather data from the public has helped to better understand ecosystem services and how they are used.

One recent example is the Slow Ways project that is used to connect walking pathways across the UK.[2] Local knowledge is critical for accurately creating how given geographies are used. With appropriate local knowledge and data, tools could be better used for planning and provide a wider landscape understanding by engaging through actor engagement.

In developing GIS tools that can engage with stakeholders, having soft skills that facilitate communication is also just as critical as having technical skills. While GIS skills are important for tool development and analysis, the tools used are also always changing.

Walking away from GIS for a few years is not necessarily detrimental, since tools can be learned and knowing the theory why given techniques and data are used is more important in enabling one to regain GIS knowledge that might be lost. While tools change, often the theory behind tools stays similar or even the same.[3]

Picture of a person presenting at a workshop about GIS.
Public speaking and other communication skills are important assets for geographers and GIS professionals.

We can think of geography as the science that can engage with the public. To explain why given operations or why data are collected, geography provides that explanation. We have seen increasingly the public can be sceptical of science and doubt the utility of technology. Geography can provide the needed explanation; it has historically had a close link between social utility and research questions.

For instance, one of the first documented uses of spatial understanding for the public good was John Snow’s work on the 1854 London cholera outbreak. The study led by Snow used geography and questioning residents to pinpoint the source of the outbreak to public water pump on Broad Street in London.[4] (The famous cholera map he commissioned was released afterwards).

Since then, geography has had a relatively clear link with social benefit and scientific research. On the other hand, only using GIS tools could seem impersonal and may rarely engage with stakeholders. 

We can see that bringing geographic theory with GIS could have a much better effect in allowing GIS professionals to engage with the public and explain the importance of data and methods that often provides public benefit. It would benefit GIS specialists to be trained with geographic knowledge, as this provides the needed theoretical knowledge to understand methods and approaches taken in work.

Having geography as a background gives GIS specialists a great advantage in their work and potentially ability to engage with key stakeholders. 


[1]    For more on the benefit s of geography in GIS, see:  Sheppard, E., McMaster, R.B., 2008. Scale and Geographic Inquiry Nature, Society, and Method.

[2]    For more on the Slow Ways project, see:

[3]    For more on relevant skills in GIS, see:  Balram, S., Boxall, J. (Eds.), 2019. GIScience Teaching and Learning Perspectives, 1st ed. 2019. ed, Advances in Geographic Information Science. Springer International Publishing : Imprint: Springer, Cham.

[4]    For more on the cholera outbreak study from 1854, see:  Johnson, S., 2008. The ghost map: the story of London’s most terrifying epidemic–and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world (affiliate link).

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.