By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation
Geospatial technology affects almost every aspect of life, from navigating an unfamiliar neighborhood to locating the world’s most wanted terrorist.
“They couldn’t have found Osama bin Laden without it,” says Phillip Davis, director of the National Geospatial Technology Center, referring to the recent U.S. Navy SEALs raid on bin Laden’s compound hideout in Pakistan, where he was killed. “The world is so interconnected today, and everything is based on spatial relationships. It is one of our nation’s essential core tools.”
Geospatial technology refers to equipment used in visualization, measurement, and analysis of earth’s features, typically involving such systems as GPS (global positioning systems), GIS (geographical information systems), and RS (remote sensing). Its use is well-known and widespread in the military and in homeland security, but its influence is pervasive everywhere, even in areas with a lower public profile, such as land use, flood plain mapping and environmental protection.
“You have people who work in surveying, who map out where a shopping center or street is going to be, and those involved in your local country property appraisals,” Davis says. “It’s also used in law enforcement to locate crimes and for fire response and in disaster management—before, during and after. It is used to locate water resources, or in public health to track the spread of disease. It’s used by the guys who drive around for Google Earth. It’s very high impact.”
The U.S. Department of Labor considers the field a high growth industry, particularly within the public sector—federal, state and local governments—as well as in regulated industries, such as telecommunications, utilities and transportation. The private sector also has begun to embrace the technology; moreover, its market has been growing at an annual rate of almost 35 percent, according to the department.
There are about 600,000 U.S. workers in geospatial technology today, a number expected to reach more than 850,000 by 2018, according to Davis, professor of computer science at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the center is based.
The National Geospatial Technology (NGT) Center, one of 40 Advanced Technological Education program centers of the National Science Foundation, wants to become “the voice for geospatial programs nationwide,” Davis says.
The NGT Center, which NSF is funding with $1.25 million annually for four years, is a partnership of seven community colleges, a community and technical college system, as well as two four-year universities, Penn State and San Diego State, in collaboration with industry and state and local governments representing all regions of the country. About 500 of the nation’s estimated 1,200 community colleges have geospatial skills programs, according to Davis.
While the center works with schools to develop faculty training and curriculum skills development in the field, it most recently drafted a “competency model” for the Department of Labor’s employment training administration to set nationwide skills standards for those who work in the industry. “It’s a national model of what the occupation requires, just as you would expect for any profession,” Davis says. “We’ve defined a consistent national standard of the skills they need. We have never had this before.”
The model, released by the department last July, is a resource for career guidance, curriculum development and evaluation, career pathway development, recruitment and hiring, continuing professional development, certification and assessment development, apprenticeship program development and outreach efforts to promote geospatial technology careers, the department said.
It includes the broad range of services, technical and manufacturing professions, and products within the fields of geography, surveying and mapping, computer science, information science and other specialized areas of application that comprise geospatial technology.
“Workers need to know about cartography and geography,” Davis says. “They need to have certain computer programming skills, and scientific knowledge.”
Training often starts as early as high school, with skills emphasis at the community college level, Davis says. Interestingly, even students who hold degrees from four-year colleges are returning to community colleges for skills training—and certificates—in order to get jobs. “They come to get the technical skills,” he says. “We’re having a lot of reverse transfer phenomena.”
The center’s partners serve a diverse student population, including Del Mar College, where Davis teaches, and Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., which serve mostly Hispanic students, and two in the Southeast with significant African American enrollment, Gainesville State College in Gainesville, Ga., and Edgecombe College, with campuses in Tarboro and Rocky Mount, N.C. The center also is working with various disability agencies to attract disabled veterans into the field.
“Learning to think spatially is something that society needs to do,” Davis says. “It’s something we need to encourage in our youth and K-12 education. We’re not just talking about geography, or drawing maps with crayons, but learning about spatial relationships—cause and effect. When you build too many homes along the coast, or near a fault susceptible to earthquakes, everything is spatially related.
“This needs to become as fundamental to our education system as reading, writing and arithmetic,” he adds. “I like to say, ‘geospatial technology: you’re lost without it.’”