Investigating industry perceptions of GIS professionals

By on 12 January, 2022

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Responses to a Curtin University survey indicate a vital need to tackle GIS accreditation and legitimacy issues.

By Jianhong (Cecilia) Xia and Mitchell R.W. Sage

Geographic information systems (GIS) have long been used in a wide variety of industries, such as mining, urban planning, the environment, agriculture and public health. Some users of GIS are formally trained and have advanced knowledge of GIS technologies, while some of are self-taught. According to the Australian Government Job Outlook (2021), there are approximately 17,700 surveyors and spatial scientists working in the spatial industry in Australia.

But currently there are no regulated standards of qualifications required to become a GIS professional, making it somewhat unclear as to whether the study and/or use of GIS is considered a ‘legitimate’ field. This suggests that someone with any (or none) of the available qualifications could compete for employment with any other person, a situation which could create numerous unnecessary challenges for aspiring GIS professionals.

We set out to investigate the current challenges of professionalisation in the GIS industry in Australia by surveying GIS professionals to learn their perceptions of the industry, specifically regarding industry challenges and how they are related to the current systems of accreditation and training.

Legitimacy of the GIS Industry

The first question we asked concerned respondents’ views on whether GIS is considered a legitimate industry in Australia. The majority of respondents (70%) said they either ‘Agree’ or ‘Strongly Agree’ that it is.

We then asked for respondents’ views on the appropriateness of current accreditation standards in relation to the quality of work expected of GIS professionals. This drew a mixed response. The most common response (31%) was ‘Neither agree nor disagree’ while 15% of respondents strongly disagreed and 11% strongly agreed. A statistically significant difference between levels of GIS education was found. Compared to other groups, postgraduates with a certificate were more likely to disagree, while postgraduates with a Master and doctorate degree were weighted more towards agreement.

The need for accreditation

Our next question canvassed whether there is a need to introduce a better accreditation process. Responses to this question were skewed towards agreement, with more than half of respondents indicating that they agree to some extent. Younger respondents (those aged less than 34) were weighted more towards agreement — they emphasised the need to make GIS education more “industry focused”.

Some notable responses included “More industry input to the curricula is required” and “[education is] much better on the job than anything I learned at university”. Such views were common among agreeing respondents.

One common idea that stood out from respondents who disagreed is that experience is more valuable than accreditation. Different respondents described this in various ways, however one response epitomised the idea well: “Work experience is paramount”.

Government regulation of accreditation

We then asked about the need for government regulation of GIS accreditation. Responses to this question were varied, with slightly more respondents leaning towards agreement. We found  statistically significant age and education level differences — the higher the age, the more inclined respondents were to disagree with government regulation, while higher GIS education level corresponded with more tendency to agree with the need for government regulation.

The greatest challenges

We asked respondents to tell us what they think are the greatest challenges faced by the GIS industry today. Here is a selection of their responses:

  • It is a rapidly changing industry and it is difficult to keep current
  • It needs recognition as a valid field. GIS is poorly understood by management in most organisations and it is undervalued. GIS professionals get much lower pay compared to other science industries and have poor options for career progression. This limits the growth of GIS teams and technology in organisations, and therefore GIS solutions to problems are missed.
  • The market is shrinking because of a lack of innovation. The tech stack is monopolised by one or two giants. We are being beaten at our own game by software developers with no background in geospatial, but who see the value in embedding geospatial into other industries, disciplines and processes.
  • There is a general lack of spatial literacy in society and a lack of community-level basic spatial education for understanding geospatial science topics and concepts. This leads to the situation where the people with the resources don’t have the knowledge, and the people with the knowledge don’t have the resources.
  • Opportunities for real world training. There is plenty of academic training but the GIS industry lacks training, mentoring and apprenticeships for getting real-world experience.
  • There are increasingly large volumes of poor quality data that require quality assurance and a lack of good understanding of the amount of effort required to maintain data.
  • There are not enough people at a high level of skill.
  • The vagueness of the minimum skills required to be a GIS professional.

And here are some of our respondents’ suggestions for how to address these challenges:

  • Upskilling of current GIS professionals.
  • Good training and professional development supported by workplaces.
  • Get more geospatial into core IT qualifications.
  • Better interaction between university and industries that employ GIS personnel.
  • Alignment and co-operation between representative bodies offering training and certification.
  • Spatial literacy in the primary curriculum.
  • Develop spatial professionals for high-level decision-making roles.
  • Make GIS a government-regulated profession requiring formal accreditation.
  • More open data from governments.
  • The market determines the need for GIS resources — when more industries are interested in using GIS, the education sector will respond.
  • As a cross discipline, GIS can be applied in lots of industries. More GIS-related free workshops and webinars would spread the usage of GIS.
  • Increase base salaries.
  • The industry needs some lobbying strength or possibly even a union.
  • Governing bodies and industry leaders need to work together to at least start this discussion, as it can have detrimental effects over the long term if skills etc. aren’t regulated.

Overall, our survey confirmed that current accreditation and training options are inadequate for the quality of work expected of GIS professionals in Australia. A comprehensive review is needed to understand, in depth, the issues and challenges faced by the GIS industry and provide strategies and an action plan to address them.

Jianhong (Cecilia) Xia is Discipline Lead – Spatial Sciences and Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Curtin University. Mitchell R.W. Sage is an undergraduate student at Curtin University.

This article was first published in issue 116 of Position magazine.

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