To What End, GIS?

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Don Meltz blogs his thoughts on the myth of the GIS professional in his post, “GIS is Dead – Long Live GIS”. By comparing GIS to Word Processing, Meltz draws the conclusion that viewing GIS as a profession is outdated and that those looking to getting into GIS as a profession shouldn’t do so.  Instead, they should “get into a profession you really enjoy, and learn how to apply the various GIS tools to your work.”  The underlying premise of the argument that Meltz makes is sound: GIS is used as an analytical tool to further analysis, mapping and decision making in a variety of fields.  Therefore, in and of itself, GIS has no purpose unless it’s being applied to answer a specific spatial question.  The applications of GIS analysis apply across many subject areas from environmental management to urban planning to even human genome mapping.  However, to compare GIS to a word processing application degrades the vast amount of underlying knowledge and skills that should, ideally, unite all those specifically skilled in Geographic Information Systems.

The analogy doesn’t quite fit.  I’ve never heard of word processing as a profession.  Typists or secretaries, perhaps.  The name has changed to the more politically correct Administrative Assistant, but those still seem to be around.  Whether or not that is considered a profession, I will leave up to others to debate.  Yes, there were writers long before the advent of computing and word processing; just as there have been cartographers analyzing geographic information long before the creation of the computer and the digitization of geographic data.  Writers don’t write for the sake of writing itself, all writing comes from a intimate knowledge of something, whether it be a personal experience or from learning about a specific field of interest.  So too, a GIS professional tells their cartographic story, albeit not in words, from an intimate perspective as well of a particular subject matter.  Yet, we don’t tell writers to find a profession they love and then write about.  What unites writers as a profession is not what they write about, but the underlying skills and knowledge about grammar and storytelling (either fact or fiction).  So too, what unites all those who specialize in GIS as a profession, is not what they map or spatially analyze, but the underlying knowledge and skills needed to understand projection and coordinate systems, scale, precision, statistical analysis and more in order to properly and accurately tell that geographic story.  Just being able to type doesn’t make one a writer, just as being able to make a map doesn’t make one a GIS professional.

UPDATE: Other blog posts on the discussion of the future of GIS


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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.

5 thoughts on “To What End, GIS?”

  1. I thinks that Don’s post was great in that it helped focus on a problem that suffers from much ‘group think.’ He did a great job of being provocative and his honest nature came through the post. The profession needs to really start dissecting some of these issues in detail. How do we all make the next moves in the GeoSpatial game.

    I also appreciate the detailed treatment of Don’t metaphors in this post. This is what needs to happen, and a lot more of it!

  2. Agreed. This has always been true of GIS and in fact any information systems (I followed my old man’s advice on this one).
    However as someone who has been working with GIS for nearly 20 years in so many fields I can assure you that GIS is not dead. It may be you are realising it is not what you thought it was, but that’s a different story.
    However good advice: don’t aim at GIS for the sake of it. That’s senseless!

  3. GIS is a strategy that has become an important part of business and government, and was recently slected by the state of California as one of the key enterprise strategies. With this type of importance
    in IT, it is not an appropriate assumption that GIS is a dying field.

  4. This argument is just a tad bit out of focus, in premise and conclusion. Yes, it is very important to have specific knowledge of the field (s) being mapped and/or analyzed. Specialty knowledge is often absent.

    However cross-disciplinary GIS is still needed. The consistent management of multiple field geometry will continue to be the domain of the profession.

    I think a more important question is what is the next step in the career of experienced GIS professionals – is it leadership?

    In any case, developing public speaking skills would be a wise investment of time.

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