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Generic versus bespoke – are GIS role titles becoming too broad?

Xavier Murray | June 2022

There was a time when being asked to make a map using GIS software with the assumption that was my only job would’ve bothered me. Then having to explain how my role involves keeping a GIS system architecture online and operating, as opposed to just making maps for everyone.

These days I don’t mind so much, but I don't envy those who must keep explaining themselves, particularly in industries starved of technical skills. I’m ashamed to say that in most cases I caved, and simply made the maps to help them on their merry way, but should I have? Shouldn’t I have increased their awareness by explaining my actual role?

The truth is that the modern GIS has evolved far beyond its humble beginnings as a mapping software. Now, the amalgamation of systems, GIS data, people and science has resulted in a discipline of its own, delivering complex capability solutions to augment a variety of practices and applications.

Extensive work has gone into the development of the desktop GIS, to the point where the user experience is now so smooth, that anyone with a free half hour for some YouTube videos, a positive attitude, and penchant for some hard work can produce high quality cartographic products with ease. In plain terms, you can make your own maps!

Not keen? That’s ok. I’ll admit that we’re all busy and not everybody has a spare half hour for a tutorial or the enthusiasm to apply some elbow grease.

But I digress. We’re talking about how GIS professionals whose complex roles are being captured in glib and inadequate job descriptions such as GIS analyst, GIS administrator and GIS manager.

I’m not alone in this opinion. A good example is this 2014 blog by Nathan Heazlewood who in his sixth dot point refers directly to the GIS roles and the language used to describe them.

The reality is much more complicated.

What if you’re a utility network provider that needs the services of an analyst, and you hire one with excellent credentials, but on day one the new recruit informs you they have no idea what the network analyst extension is and for the last three years they’ve been building deep learning models on satellite imagery?

In other words, despite being a highly skilled GIS professional, they can’t do the job they were hired to do because the discipline is complex.

It's not about just mapping software, GIS software, GIS data or GIS mapping. And it isn’t enough to just ask for an analyst. Just look at this blog listing 1000 GIS applications and uses—it gives a hint of the way specialisations can form.

There are many flavours to a GIS professional and communicating this to non-spatial industries is an ongoing challenge, particularly as the demand for GIS continues to explode.

Combine this with an overall lack of spatial professionals and a certain environment begins to form. From experience, I’m going to refer to this phenomenon as forced technical generalism. That is, a situation where GIS personnel are supporting numerous capabilities, services, products and staff, in a wide variety of capacities, and ever so gradually their role shifts into a generalised technologist support because it’s what seems to be needed.

That’s great they can do this, right? Well, it can be, but let me explain further.

Being a GIS professional demands a level of generalisation, certainly, but there is also the need for specialists, and the deployment of the Esri Enterprise GIS architecture is a fine example.

So, there you are with a system that supports thousands of daily end users and you’re conducting a much-needed upgrade, but halfway through that upgrade you receive an email from your team leader requesting five maps by close-of-business for a presentation to high roller stakeholders.

A tricky situation, right? Which role gets the priority: the generalist or the specialist? As the saying goes, a person can serve two masters—just neither of them very well.

So now, let’s introduce another aspect of GIS for discussion: remote sensing. The pairing seems quite natural; remotely sensed data and the GIS work in almost perfect symbiosis and once this could have been considered an interchangeable part of the discipline. I would challenge that now.

Remote sensing capability has gone gangbusters in the last decade, but these days there isn’t just an old Landsat image floating around the office to use as a base map. Now there’s LiDAR, Synthetic Aperture Radar, hyperspectral and drone photogrammetry (all of which and more that the modern GIS can consume and provide as a service).

There is also imagery machine and deep learning capabilities, raster analytics, 3D surface modelling to consider. Is this all GIS, too? If so, what’s the rest of the team doing?

The argument I’m trying to make is that there needs to be a line. There needs to be some form of division between GIS professionals that transcends the typical boundaries set by hiring firms that needed categories to discreetly herd applicants into roles desperate for a candidate.

But what would this look like? Is it a framework? A professional registration body? And what about industry certifications? There are many options, but the only way to truly guarantee a future in which the GIS is fully understood to be a complex, standalone discipline of its own is to refine our own language in describing these roles and communicate them effectively. Much like this blog about sabotaging capability with language, we need to do better explaining these roles so we can recruit to them effectively.

Industries move and change, but humanity’s requirement for spatial knowledge is persistent. The GIS industry will continue to grow and it’s more important than ever for the people within the industry to take control of the narrative.

GIS is more than maps.