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Rebranding GIS Geospatial

Is there a cure to the chronic underutilization of what GIS can offer?  Community evangelist, Adam Carnow is on a mission to rebrand the industry and lead a mini-revolution to stop people from calling geospatial professionals mapmakers.

Adam has a bachelor’s degree in geography, and a master’s in urban and regional planning. He’s been a GIS practitioner for over 25 years with a well-rounded set of experience applying GIS across different projects.  He spent the last decade at Esri, but he is no stranger to the public sector or academia.  In his current position as a GIS community evangelist, he works with people to maximize their ROI.  He supports the non-technical, business management culture side of GIS and promotes the geospatial community.

GIS Is So Much More Than Making Maps

GIS technology is underutilized.  Users are not just mapmakers—which is a difficult vocation by its own merits. It’s hard to make good maps.  But imagine for a moment using what you already own and doing a lot more with your enterprise GIS technology beyond the desktop.  Tons of people have already benefited from strategies and techniques to overcome this underutilization.

The Current GIS Marketing Is Broken

Problem number one is that most GIS professionals are geographers and planners, and they don’t have a business or IT background. They’re not prepared for the role they’re supposed to be fulfilling.  Look at the GIS manager role.  The job descriptions of most GIS managers expect the holder of the title to have a bachelor’s in geography, a certain number of years of experience, and a list of technical capabilities.  Can you see the problem with this?

If you want your GIS manager to spread the technology far and wide, you need someone with a business and IT management background who has been exposed to transformation and innovation.

Problem number two is that we need to stop portraying ourselves as mapmakers.  We are only prolonging the outdated image people already have of us.  Change your elevator pitch and say that you help people make better decisions with the power of location.  Say that you’re a location intelligence professional. You’ll get a very different response than “Okay if I need a map, I’ll come to you.”

Is Your Department Still Called GIS?

It should have been renamed a long time ago to something that lets others recognize its true value.  Who calls a department by the tool they use, anyway?  Is there a Spreadsheet department in your company?

Spatial analytics, location intelligence, cartography are all more reflective of what GIS can do for an organization.

The rebranding will establish value.  We can get out, be proactive, and show it.  We can change the elevator pitch and help people reposition their assumptions about the profession and the community.

Executives Lack Of IT And Management Skills

Most GIS professionals come out of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, poorly prepared for management and IT.  They start off as an analyst and, if they’re any good, they move up to be a senior analyst and then a project manager.  Next thing they know, they’re managing a GIS department with no management training.  It’s a problem with many industries, not only GIS.

To make things worse, executives don’t always understand the evolution and value of technology.  You end up with job descriptions that someone wrote 10 or 15 years ago. Gone are the days when the GIS department provided only maps or spatial products.  Today, people do advanced analysis, cartography, and data management on their desktops and share it via a few clicks with users across various devices.  Their role is not to do all the GIS by themselves but to convert everyone else into GIS users and provide back end support for more advanced technology needs to users.

A modern GIS manager’s job description requires someone with an MBA or an MPA (Master’s in Public Administration) or IT systems management.  Job descriptions need to change, and people high up need to understand the full value that is buried in their GIS.

GIS Needs Leaders, Not More Managers

The geospatial community needs people who are proactive and passionate about the value of technology across the entire enterprise, and they want to maximize every part of what they own.

A GIS leader is an agent of change, driving digital transformation with technology and its possibilities.

In terms of leadership training, not much is available.  A good example is URISA and their GIS Leadership Academy — a five-day, extensive program that covers business culture, soft skills, and creating leaders.

We can’t fault anyone for the way things are at the moment.  This niche geospatial technology became ubiquitous and valuable suddenly while we were busy with our heads down and without business awareness.  Now we are experiencing the results of our circumstance.

It’s frustrating to see that organizations have this fantastic technology they could use daily, and they’re not doing it.  I tell people all the time,

“Your colleagues want your help and need your help. They just don’t know it.”

Where There Is Change, There Is Opportunity

With all that’s happening, we need communicators, leaders, and to get people out of the machine room.  Underutilization means opportunity. You can move up and increase your salary.  This is the perfect time to show off what you are capable of.  We need people with soft skills, communication abilities, writing and presenting skills, and being able to distill complex ideas into simple terms that anyone can understand.

Soft skills are more valuable than technical skills.  They are harder to find, and they’re even harder to teach.  While we’re on the subject, let’s quit calling them soft skills and rebrand them as essential skills.  On a personal level, these essential skills enabled me to move up and become this geospatial communicator, translator, and evangelist that I am today.

“I am here to help people do more with technology.”

For an organization, such a person is an asset.  They can turn up at a meeting, listen to a problem, and they know what data and spatial capabilities they need to solve the problem.  They communicate this during the meeting, and then they get someone to program it.  This is value.

Executives don’t care about the specific geospatial technologies or share your enthusiasm for geodatabases, spatial projections — they’d rather leave the room.  They want to focus on results.  So let’s quit talking GIS, and instead talk about what it can do for the organization.

Start using simple terms, like location intelligence.  Explain to people that location intelligence is achieving critical insight through the use of spatial data.  It efficiently solves problems.  Your audience will be listening.  They’ll be easier to onboard, and you don’t even have to explain that it’s GIS providing all that.

It’s all about breaking down communication and translating complex ideas.

Is GIS Still The Next Big Thing?

10 years ago, if you needed a geospatial product, you went to the GIS department.  It was desktop-based and manned by trained professionals who produced paper maps, JPEG and PDF maps, or an application.

Today, they manage data streams, keep databases up to date, provide projections and analysis, create and output models.  Clients can then plug into a map service with their phone, tablet, or desktop. There’s a shift from the GIS department doing it all by themselves.  Essentially, they provide a platform for other people to dial into, collaborate, and get their work done.

The future is blended.  Location and business intelligence are spatial data.  Almost all data is spatial, it’s a challenge to come up with data that’s not spatial.  A business intelligence and data analytics group or a decision and data science group will use spatial tools when they’re touching spatial data.  GIS will be part of the solution that is streamed over to other devices.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the many booming technologies that will help GIS be even more valuable.  Every sensor, stationary or moving, has one thing in common and that’s location.  IoT is always geo IoT.  You would miss out on a lot of opportunities if you didn’t integrate the data from your IoT sensor with GIS.

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, bandwidth, and hardware will make data values much more valuable because people can crunch through them faster with automation. We’re up for a tremendous explosion.  What we’ve seen in the last 10 years is just the logarithmic start, and it will be exponential from here.

The Future Is Bright, We’ve Got To Wear Shades

GIS is front and center with the pandemic.  We never thought about the impact of something like this on our industry.  The entire globe is focusing on one issue, united. The core of that issue is geography.  Now is our time to shine, show value, and help as many people as possible, literally in a life and death situation.  The spotlight is on us, and we can demonstrate how the technology works.  We can make an enormous difference fast with all the low-code/no-code stuff that we can crank things out with.  The pandemic will fast forward us into the future with a momentum that will change so many things.

My Advice To GIS Professionals — Think Beyond The Map

Your number one focus should be on essential skills to become a geographical, geospatial translator, and negotiator.  These skills are premium right now and will continue to be.

Be innovative.  Get your head out of your map.  Think data science, BI, and analytics.  Learn about IoT, AI, and machine learning.  Ride these waves and see where they can take you.

Get business and leadership training that’s worthwhile to an organization.  We are all salespeople, whether we’re selling our skills to get a job or a project to people who want to back it.

If you prefer to code and crank out technology  — great.  We need people to do that.  It’s hard, and it requires talent.  I know.  I did it for a long time, and I still miss it.  But if you want to move up and assume a leadership position, you’ve got to work at it.  You don’t just wake up one day and become a leader. Don’t be afraid of getting out of the technical side.  Move into communicating and facilitating.

My Advice For Geospatial Startups

Plug into IoT.  Make sure you’re utilizing AI and machine learning and learn how to slice through big data.  That’s where the future is.

Low-code/no-code, and cloud.  The barrier to entry is much lower these days.  More startups can get into the creative new business in the geospatial industry.  Latch onto the fact that most organizations have spatial data, and they’re not getting their full ROI.  Helping them to do that is a huge value.

Do you tell people at parties that you make maps like Google Maps? Can you envisage the future as bright as Adam or you’re not convinced just yet?  I’d love to know your thoughts.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.