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A geographic information system (GIS) is a digital mapping technique that links computer-generated maps with databases. GIS analysts use this technology to integrate biophysical, ecological, and socio-economic data that can be analyzed for purposes such as tracking wildlife, mapping erosion, monitoring air and water quality, or measuring logging rates. Unlike traditional cartography, GIS data sources are digital and can easily be updated, allowing GIS analysts to produce up-to-date maps using multiple data sets to customize the information for particular industries and audiences.
At a glance
Imagine you are sitting in the back row of a dimly lit room packed with fire-crew chiefs, emergency responders, and city officials. You are a GIS analyst and you have been called in to support one of the biggest forest firefighting operations this season. Around the room, all eyes are fixed on the brightly coloured three-dimensional map at the front, with its graphic depiction of the out-of-control forest fire burning only 12 kilometres away. You have spent the last few days putting this map together, and you know how valuable it will be for decision makers in the next few critical days.
As a GIS analyst, you specialize in analyzing data sets to construct digital maps. In this case, you took topographic data to build a basic map of the area. Then you added more data on the fire, updating burnt areas so the map accurately reflected changes in the landscape. You also added other features that would help firefighters, for example potential obstacles that could slow the fire or keep firefighters from reaching certain areas. Then you added another data set on air quality, which is updated frequently so firefighters can see where the smoke is heaviest and where respirators are necessary.
The map also includes homes that fall in the fire's path and indicates whether residents have been evacuated. Emergency workers will be watching this very closely so they can get people to a safe place if air quality deteriorates and lives are threatened. Meteorologists use your map to build scenarios predicting the fire's behaviour based on weather models, giving firefighters a head start if the wind changes direction or strength. You know that in situations like this, a dynamic, up-to-date map with the kind of information you've included can really help fire crews operate and inform the kinds of critical decisions that save lives.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a GIS analyst:
- Use computer programs and software packages to prepare graphic reports, maps, and charts.
- Analyze data sets for daily decision-making procedures.
- Create, develop, and maintain databases.
- Use maps and data sets for spatial analysis.
- Develop computer software regimes to customize geographical information.
- Compile spatial data sets for a variety of sources, including census data, Global Positioning System (GPS) data, field observations, satellite images, and environmental monitoring data.
- Prepare reports of geographical statistics based on spatial data.
- Liaise with colleagues and counterparts in other organizations to share information and procure data sets.
- Communicate with clients to understand their needs.
GIS analysts work in a variety of locations, including, but not limited to:
In the office:
- Gathering, entering, and analyzing data, including manipulating data and cleaning up data sources
- Generating maps and charts
- Reviewing maps, photos, and surveys and capturing data
- Managing databases
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, colleagues, and stakeholders
- Providing training to staff members
In the field:
- Recording data and surveying areas
- Verifying survey data and map information
- Liaising with clients
Where to work
- Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
- Surveying and computer mapping companies
- Environmental and engineering consulting companies
- Commercial map publishers and GIS/geomatics firms
- Marketing, statistical, information technology, and census firms
- Colleges and universities
- Other industries, for example oil and gas, tourism, forestry, and mining
- Self-employed consultant
Education & requirements
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a GIS analyst is a university undergraduate degree. The following post secondary programs are most applicable to a career in this field:
- Geographic information systems
- Computer science
- Environmental science
It is not mandatory to be certified in order to work as a GIS analyst.
If you are a high school student considering a career as a geomatics technician, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
- Computer science
Geomatics technicians make between $43,300 and $54,300 per year in Canada, depending on years of experience and education.
When I was in high school I wanted to create something new and decided my career would be in the development of computer software. I joined the military and earned my degree in computer science at the Military Engineering Academy of Mozhaisky in Leningrad, USSR. My first job after military service was with a company that develops geographical information systems (G.I.S.) software. Once I saw the potential for this type of programming I knew that this was the area where I wanted to work.
It was fortunate that I chose to work with the software developer that ended up being a world leader in G.I.S. software. The software is very flexible for developers and allowed me to adapt it for use in various projects. I gained experience by completing projects in the Ukraine and, through the Internet, in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. I recognized the opportunities that exist in Canada for G.I.S. developers due the vast size of the country and the rich resource base. Before I got to Canada I had located a job through the Internet and started work the day after arriving. Since that day I have worked at different positions in software development and currently act as a G.I.S. software development consultant. If you are interested in Canadian employment opportunities in this area check with government organizations, oil and gas companies and environmental consulting firms.
I devote the first hour of every day to learning what is new. I read the messages in the user conferences on the Internet, check web sites that publish G.I.S. news, review the G.I.S. software developers web site and read journals and magazines. There is also an annual G.I.S. user conference that I attend as well as various seminars throughout the year. It is important to keep learning so you can do more complicated projects in the future.
As development continues, G.I.S. software becomes easier to operate for the end user while the complexity within the program increases. This is the job of the programmer, to develop powerful software that is easy to use. Applications for G.I.S. are now being found in areas like the public health sector where diseases are being mapped and facilities planned. The future uses for this software will be limited only by the imaginations of the software developers.
If you are coming to Canada from another country try to find volunteer opportunities through the Internet before immigrating. This will help you learn what Canadian companies need from G.I.S. developers. It will also give you good experience in communicating with the people who work in the field of G.I.S. software development. I have found that the most challenging part of my work is understanding what my customer really wants. Because I often approach a problem from a different way than my customer would, it is important to communicate so that both sides can learn and understand each other.
Most of my work is done on the computer during normal office hours. This can change if a project has a demanding schedule that requires longer hours. I use my skills with programming languages and data structures to solve problems and develop applications for my customers. I am proud of developing an application that geophysicists use with topographical data. This software allows the user to produce a map for anywhere in Alberta by entering the township name. The program brings data related to that township into the map and creates a legend so the user can interpret the symbols. The best rewards of my work come when I can do something that nobody else has done before.
The southeastern part of the Ukraine is an older industrial area with a lot of mines, steel factories and manufacturing facilities. The waste from these activities has polluted the area near my hometown. My knowledge of G.I.S. was put to good use when I helped the faculty of the local university learn geographical information systems software. The faculty then taught the students how to map the pollution. I am glad that I could contribute to this important clean up project.