The majority of data is collected now with four embedded variables: latitude, longitude, elevation, and time. That means that in many forms of geospatial analysis, several central questions, such as when and where, are already solved—and therefore one’s effort can be directed at the remaining questions of how and why. So while today’s most in-demand job might be that of a data scientist, that’s rapidly shifting towards a demand for spatial data scientists who are adept at thinking in this three- and four-dimensional way.
The scope of possible use cases for GIS is staggering, and it goes well beyond a business optimizing its marketing campaigns with geo-referenced data. GIS can help build a refugee camp for 600,000 people in a flood-prone area in under six months, while also making sure the structure doesn’t interfere with the natural migration patterns of endangered Asian elephants. It can optimize elections in the most populous county in the US. And it’s a critical tool for disease mapping, whether in an attempt to eradicate leprosy or to track the spread of a new strain of coronavirus (COVIN-19). Both the potential and the detail involved in GIS ventures can stretch the mind to its limits.
“The human mind can't do it all,” Fleming says. “That's why we have machines to help us.”
In the early days, technical requirements meant that GIS was almost exclusively the domain of governments. But as the cost of collecting, storing, processing, and delivering data has plummeted, it’s now accessible for businesses and organizations of all sizes. Artificial intelligence (or augmented intelligence), machine learning, and other advances in computer science are, in conjunction with GIS, rapidly turning the impossible into the possible.
“These are very complex problems,” Fleming says. “But if you line the data up properly there often are ways of segmenting it to where you can focus your attention on where the problem is occurring, and when it's occurring."
Visualization helps and it’s getting better. In the past, that might’ve meant spreadsheets and 2D maps. But quickly the expectation became to visualize data in 3D. Once it was possible to add the component of time, it became 4D, meaning that GIS professionals could view and measure how a 3D landscape changes over time. Heads-up displays (HUDs) and virtual reality lenses may point to one corner of the future of visualization.
“Today, the ways of visualizing geospatial data are very different than the way they were 20 years ago,” Fleming says. “Where we’re going very rapidly is into the modeling and simulation world, where we interact more with the data instead of just visualizing the data through traditional viewers.”
USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) is partnering with the gaming and film industries to look for possible GIS applications. Big budget movie studios can already mix the created world with the captured world to such an extent that it’s sometimes impossible for the human eye to distinguish between the two. Gaming engines are capable of working with material science and physics in the form of details about collision surfaces and transparency. Fleming sees massive potential.
“How do we take real geospatial data (or geo-specific data) and put it inside these gaming engines very rapidly, to where we can actually make decisions on real data, instead of hypothetical data?” Fleming asks. “That's a huge challenge that the industry is starting to take on.”
A more pressing challenge, in Fleming’s view, is the dearth of qualified spatial data scientists. But it’s a challenge he also sees as a major opportunity, both for students to upskill themselves into a massively in-demand profession, and for academic programs like those at USC’s Spatial Sciences Institute and Viterbi School of Engineering to contribute to the growth of the field.
In addition to the graduate-level GIS programs it hosts at its Los Angeles campus, USC also offers two online master’s degrees in GIS: one in geographic information science and technology (GIST) and one in human security and geospatial intelligence. Both programs are taught by the same faculty members that teach the residential courses, and provide the same dedication to their students’ success. These master’s programs can be completed in under 20 months and they include multiple opportunities to develop, design, and execute GIS projects.
For GIS professionals who are looking to take on managerial positions, the school offers three graduate certificates which can be completed in just seven months. All programs involve hands-on experience with GIS tech and close professional relationships with both peers and faculty.
You don’t necessarily have to be an expert coder to excel in GIS, but some inherent technical understanding about computer science is helpful. Fleming points to natural abilities in math and spatial thinking as characteristics of a successful spatial science student. But even more critical to Fleming is thoughtful guidance found in a quote from the late futurist and businessman Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
The future of GIS lies in understanding how multiple data sources from non-traditional avenues can be combined and leveraged in new ways. As the suite of tech surrounding GIS, as well as the type of data that fuels it, continues to change and evolve over time, the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn will be key for spatial scientists. With that mindset, anything is possible.
Steven D. Fleming is professor of the practice of spatial sciences in the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. He earned his BS in computer science from West Point, his master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College, and both his master’s and his doctorate in geography from the University of Georgia. His research and teaching is focused on four areas: the applications of geospatial technologies for national defense; emerging terrestrial, airborne, and space-based image collection systems; online and blended training using mobile devices; and the dynamic mapping of coastal regions.
A retired colonel in the US Army, Fleming has command, staff, and combat experience, twice deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom. Prior to joining the faculty at USC, Fleming served as deputy head of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at West Point. In addition to his role at USC’s Spatial Science Institute, Fleming is also a research professor with the USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, a DoD-sponsored research center which works in collaboration with the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL).
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