August 12, 2007
Technology Reveals New Worlds to Map
By BARBARA WHITAKER
MORE than a decade ago, when Michelle Boivin told her father she had decided to major in geography, he was not impressed. “What are you going to do with a geography degree?” she recalled him saying. “All you can do with geography is teach.”
Ms. Boivin proved her father wrong. She started her career in Charlotte, N.C., working with the city’s transportation department, tracking growth and helping to decide where to place new roads. Then, in Orange County in California, she used her skills with the fire authority to coordinate efforts of regional fire departments.
In her current job, Ms. Boivin, 30, does do some teaching, but not at a school. As a geographic information systems analyst with Technology Associates, she works with the military to gather and assess data to help manage military facilities on the West Coast, including Camp Pendleton in California, where she is based. At times she also teaches marines and contractors how to use mapping technology.
Where maps were once confined to paper and ink, G.I.S., or geographic information systems, now use computers and software to link maps and databases. The programs have many uses.
For example, a military base might use G.I.S. to layer information about flight zones, firing ranges and utility lines on a map when deciding where to put a new building, Ms. Boivin said.
Consider the days when the police used push pins to show where a murder had occurred. Today, that information is held on a computerized map that can easily be combined with other data and sent to officers and agencies.
Many jobs are with the government, but technological advances have also helped drive private-sector jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists G.I.S.-related jobs as among the fastest-growing new or emerging fields.
More companies see the value of G.I.S. services, and there are not enough people to fill all the available jobs, said Richard Serby, a founder of GeoSearch, which recruits people for jobs in mapping sciences.
There are jobs for entry-level technicians who input data, programmers who create ways to process it, analysts who make sense of it, and project managers who set goals and oversee work. Scott A. Grams, executive director of the G.I.S. Certification Institute in Park Ridge, Ill., says salaries have jumped in the last four to five years as the number and types of jobs have grown.
A 2006 survey by the group shows annual salaries starting at about $38,000 for a G.I.S. technician and rising to about $85,000 for a director. G.I.S. analysts make an average of about $50,000; those who work on contract average nearly $100,000, the survey found. But these are only reference points; experience and level of training are also factors.
The field is unregulated, Mr. Grams said, and the institute has created a voluntary accreditation program that establishes minimum criteria.
While several colleges have degree programs in G.I.S. professions, many people receive training on the job. Rob Glazier, a G.I.S. manager at the Walgreen Company in Deerfield, Ill., has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and went on to seek a master’s in physical therapy, but then became interested in market research. While on the job with a health care company, he learned to use mapping software.
In 2005, he joined Walgreen as a G.I.S. manager and has been promoted to lead a team that focuses on health care. Among its responsibilities is analyzing data geographically to see where the company should put pharmacies in clinics. “G.I.S. is our primary tool for analyzing complicated business questions,” he said. “If there’s a geographic component to information, we can pull it out.”
Two other people are on his team. One, a medical geographer, has a master’s in G.I.S. The other has a background in strategic planning, and learned G.I.S. skills on the job. “I look for problem solvers,” Mr. Glazier said, “people who have creative ways of answering questions.”
Looking to put skills to work for the greater good, a group of professionals started the G.I.S. Corps, which is much like a Peace Corps for mapping professionals. Shoreh Elhami, a co-founder, says some projects take workers far from home, while other projects can be done from a volunteer’s living room.
THE corps is working with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which wanted five volunteers to help track accounts of atrocities in Darfur. Working from home, the volunteers use computers to mine databases and look for accounts of attacks, which are then mapped electronically.
One volunteer will leave soon for Afghanistan to work with Engineers Without Borders International, which requested a professional to train about 30 faculty members at Kabul Polytechnic University in G.I.S.
While she lived in Charlotte, Ms. Boivin volunteered in the gulf coast states after Hurricane Katrina, providing maps to groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross.
“This was something I always had dreamed of doing,” she said. “I loved it.” And she proved again that her geography skills could take her far beyond the university.
Fresh Starts is a monthly column about emerging jobs and job trends.