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Geospatial technologies will affect our future

Posted Dec. 30, 2011, at 3:25 p.m.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor identified geospatial technologies as among the most important emerging and evolving fields within the economy. Seven years since that report, and with the ubiquitous use of Geographic Information Systems Internet mapping and high-resolution Earth imaging, there is little doubt this trend will accelerate as private- and public-sector adopters of the technology realize its full potential.

What we now consider routine applications, such as Internet maps to find street addresses or Global Positioning Systems to navigate street networks, involve the use of complex and interlinked theories, concepts and technologies related to geography, mapping, aerial and satellite imaging, surveying and database design. These coalesce within a GIS, which provides us the ability to capture, store, edit, analyze and display data with a spatial or geographic component.

GIS and geospatial technologies are used routinely in fields as diverse as business and marketing, emergency management, environmental planning, geo-intelligence and security, risk assessment, urban planning and utilities management, to name just a few. Studies suggest that industries such as telecommunications, utilities, transportation, education and scientific research constitute some of the largest consumers of this technology, and there is great capacity for growth.

The value of GIS is realized through its application in numerous daily tasks. Logistics companies use it to plan optimal delivery routes, the insurance industry assesses risk and vulnerability with geospatial data, the retail sector understands its customer base to provide more efficient services, while in the communications realm, location-specific applications such as Foursquare, Microsoft GeoLife and Google Buzz on cell phones or social media websites help diffuse this technology to the general public.

Future growth in the geospatial technologies industry will depend on a number of factors. These include building capacity and developing broad citizen access to the technology, constructing innovative value-added applications to help businesses make informed decisions, gathering and sharing reliable geospatial data, and training a capable work force. Moreover, the Internet and advances in information and communications technologies undoubtedly also will play a significant role in its expansion.

An important factor propelling the geospatial industry from a specialized niche sector some 40 years ago to its status as an important tool used in decision-making has been public awareness and accessibility. The Internet and applications for the dissemination of geospatial data have played no small role in that process. High-resolution satellite imagery of the Earth’s surface, once the domain of governments and scientists exclusively, is now available to anyone with access to the Internet.

Today, the public is constantly consuming place-based GIS-generated products without necessarily being familiar with the technology itself. The use of GPS or Internet-based maps to locate a particular business outlet is just one simple example of this. At the same time, citizen access and awareness can stimulate a greater demand for new applications of this technology, which will fuel innovation, and a domino effect can help the industry expand into new markets.

A well-trained work force in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is also critical to sustaining future GIS contributions to industry and society. Infusing geographic education and geospatial reasoning skills in middle and high schools and GIS-specific training through universities and community colleges can help meet projected needs in the work force.

Campuses across the University of Maine System have encouraged this process and engaged in collaborative GIS curriculum design and shared resources to provide students with training in cutting-edge geospatial technologies and real-world experiences through internships and assistantships. Through internships, students also can play an important role in sharing their knowledge of tailored GIS applications to meet the needs of their work environments.

Citizen access to geospatial technologies and data are slowly revolutionizing how we view the world. GIS has restored the importance of understanding people-place interactions in an array of activities and decision-making processes. With such value and possibility, leaders and users of this technology should promote its application as broadly as possible.

Firooza Pavri is an associate professor of geography at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. She engages in research focused on environmental geography and the application of geospatial and satellite imaging technologies.

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