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Insights Mapping out a career in GIS

Spatial data underpins almost every aspect of our lives. But while the concept of mapping is known, many people don't realise the role geospatial experts play in delivering major projects. We caught up with Laura Armstrong to learn more.
image of Laura smiling
Why do you think it’s important to work in and learn about this industry?

GIS helps us make sense of the world and informs our understanding of it, which is especially useful as the world is rapidly growing and changing.

My role as a GIS Analyst generally consists of capturing, managing and quality-assuring geospatial data to support clients and colleagues. Insight is added to the data through spatial analysis, interrogation and mapping to inform decision making process.

One of my favourite projects thus far has been the development of a large road scheme where I worked with ecologists, engineers, heritage experts and other disciplines. My main task was working with ecologists to create bat and badger surveys, which would allow them to go out into the field and collect data on devices such as a phones or tablets. This eliminates the need for paper surveys which could end up getting lost or soggy and the tedious process of writing everything up when back in the office. These kinds of surveys are extremely important in assessing the impact a development may have on local flora and fauna, and if there are any alternative actions that can be taken to protect them.

Was there a definitive moment that steered you towards a career in the geospatial industry?

I was in my last year of my geography undergraduate on a field trip feeling very insecure and uncertain about my future. I was interested in a variety of different things; sustainability, global events, environmental change, but I couldn’t see myself just doing one of them. I overheard a fellow student asking one of my lecturers about the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) masters they ran and the more I overheard, the more I wanted to find out. What I love about GIS is that it encompasses all the things I’m passionate about and brings them together.

When undertaking my masters, I was inspired by one of my lecturers who had tirelessly worked on using geospatial data and analyses to identify water bodies where anopheles mosquitoes were likely to breed. Work like that is helping eradicate malaria for good from certain areas. The potential uses of GIS made me want to start a career in it.

What is the most rewarding part of working in GIS?

Working in the geospatial field means everything is constantly changing, improving and innovating due to rapid technological advances and the mountains of data we are all creating every day. It’s great to be at the forefront of such cutting-edge technology and ideas but you also have to work hard to not be left behind, which is both challenging and rewarding. In a world where autonomous vehicles and drones delivering shopping to your door doesn’t seem so crazy anymore, geospatial specialists are needed now more than ever to help evolve this technology.

Our industry is also playing a role in helping to achieve the UK Government’s ambitious Net Zero targets We’re able to offer analytical insights, collating information to build a clear, visual picture of current and forecasted energy use, and the resultant carbon emissions. This is a really diverse challenge for our team; our projects in the last year have ranged from predicting electric vehicle demand as part of Net Zero masterplans, to analysing the potential for sewage-source-heat in rural villages. Helping to lead this global shift to clean energy is very exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing where GIS will go next.

Do you think people know enough about the geospatial industry and its challenges?

While people are familiar with maps and the concept of mapping, I don’t think there’s much awareness around the role of geospatial experts in compiling and analysing data, and how this can be used successfully on projects.

Geospatial techniques have played a role in a number of recent high-profile stories, but GIS remains an unsung hero. For example, GIS was used to help choose the landing site for the Mars Perseverance Rover. High-resolution imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was used to allowing NASA to make better, more informed decisions choosing the Jezero Crater out of 30 potential landing sites. This is a great example of GIS in action, and with travel to Mars unlikely for quite a few years yet, geospatial experts will also have a role to play in analysing the data returned by the Orbiter. Stories like this show that the geospatial industry is here to stay, and will be a critical part of our digital future revitalising infrastructure, achieving sustainability goals and transforming how the value we can get from data.

What would you personally say (or even do) to get younger people interested in GIS?

If you’re interested in a career in an industry that is expanding, that can bring together practically anything - climate change, hydrology, forestry, biodiversity, coastal change, consultancy, epidemiology etc, then you should definitely consider learning about GIS. There are many amazing open source GIS software you can download to get started and lots of help online. It’s a great digital skill to learn.

Do you think a programme/project like Faces of the Future is important for the industry and the UK?

I think it’s really important to highlight smaller industries and let people know they exist. I didn’t realise this industry was an option in school simply because I didn’t know about it, however now that I’m in it, I tell everyone about it.