The Case for the GIS Analyst

The GIS Analyst sits somewhere between the professional with problems that need to be mapped and GIS Professionals. A GIS Analyst needs to know enough about the problem being mapped to ask intelligent questions of the scientists they’re working with, and enough about GIS to bring useful information to the them. The challenge is to bring maps produced in the field into a corporate GIS.

Sadly, and understandably, the great advances that have occurred for GIS technology have not always been matched with advances in non-commercial GIS applications. By this I mean that there are lots of geographical research problems (social, environmental and engineering) that should be addressed, but are not. It is true that many professionals are overwhelmed by their daily workloads and simply do not have the time to think about new ways of doing things (ie. taking the role of a GIS analyst). But I also think there is a general lack-of-interest by both GIS Professionals and the other professional groups in each other. Each group tends to dislike the complimentary skillset that is required to analyse problems geographically…

  1. GIS Professionals: Those with GIS know-how tend to be technology-focussed and not interested in learning about the geographical problems they could be helping with.
  2. Other professionals groups:
    1. Most Environmental Professionals would prefer to be in the field rather than being behind a desk, and so they tend not to be interested in learning GIS.
    2. Most social researchers are happy working in an office environment but are not interested in gaining a new computer skill. They have become social researchers because computer science does not interest them.
    3. Engineering professionals tend to be interested in highly localized projects and even though they tend to be very technically adept, their profession does not lend itself to landscape level problem solving.

Herein lays the opportunity for GIS newcomers. There is a great need for those professions with geographical problems to take an interest in the basic use of GIS, and a great need for GIS professionals to take an interest in the basics of their client’s geographical problems. Maps are so much more useful when the people creating them understand all the facets of the GIS project – the data inputs, the GIS processes used to create them, the nature of the problem being mapped, and what the resulting maps mean!

For the past two decades I have worked as a GIS analyst on a wide variety of geographical problems. There are two major GIS issues that have not changed in this time…

  1. GIS maps are often poor quality:
    1. This not an issue for maps produced by surveyors because the coordinates surveyors collect are accurate.
    2. For other types of maps (eg. vegetation, soils, small scale road maps), because the cartographic clues to map quality that exist in the paper version of the GIS map (scale bars, thick lines, etc) get lost when the map is converted to GIS, these GIS maps are often poor quality without the users realizing it.
  2. Incorrect use of maps: In a GIS, maps become scaleless, and while scalelessness is not a big issue for surveyed maps, it is a very big issue for non-surveyed maps. The understanding of the data that lies behind GIS maps is often lacking by those who are using the maps and so the maps get used incorrectly. This is understandable because end users are used to using accurate GIS maps created by licensed surveyors – cadastre, engineering assets such as water pipes and electricity, etc, overlaid onto GIS corrected (ortho-rectified) air photos. In contrast, non-surveyed maps are “interpreted” and their scale relates closely to the amount of fieldwork that went into creating them (ie. a map created in a few days is less accurate than the same map created by the same people in a few weeks).

There are so many innovative and valuable GIS projects that need to be done.  Many of these will not happen in the absence of a GIS analyst.  So please, if you have a problem that has a geographical facet, take the time to learn the basics of GIS so you can have a meaningful conversation with GIS operators.  And GIS operators, please make the effort to understand your client’s geographical problems.

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