Having visited about 200 universities around the world over the past decade, I can safely assert that almost all major universities are teaching and using GIS – some, such as where I studied (Buffalo), since the 1970s, while others are just getting starting. What they have in common is that students on the verge of graduation want to know where they might find opportunities, either as postgraduate researchers or as GIS practitioners. And what many have in common is a rather narrow view of GIS: a classroom of students analysing thematic layers to discover patterns, relationships and processes.
Learning how to operate desktop GIS software to solve problems by analysing these thematic layers is an important and necessary practice for students specialising in GIS as well as for those applying GIS to a cognate field. It is difficult to find GIS courses that do not talk about buffers and overlay. Alas, many students get just a brief taste of the ‘layercake’, maybe just a semester, and are pushed off to other coursework and then out into the working world. That world is advancing rapidly, in part due to innovations in technology and business practices.
Institutions are increasingly connected, providing real-time access to important data, anytime anywhere. Building the infrastructure – what some call enterprise GIS – to make that possible is not a trivial exercise. In many cases the institution no longer relies on a few ‘GIS people in the basement’ to do all the analysis and produce mapped results. The norm is now mobile apps and in situ sensors feeding data into multiuser databases in the cloud, which is where geoprocessing also happens. Final decisions are also made on mobile devices or on the web from remote locations. In the messy middle, the GIS is often integrated with other complex business systems (think SAP).
While some people talk of the final days of GIS, I’d say that GIS has morphed in accordance with technology trends. People are still asking spatial questions and getting answers, only the box on the desk often is not where this all happens. And GIS is now much better plugged-into the inner workings of the business or government agency.
One way to easily distinguish enterprise GIS is ‘beyond basic desktop workflows’. This is certainly not to claim that desktop GIS is irrelevant, only to underscore its specific role as a specialised node in the wider enterprise constellation. Many top universities around the world now have access to mobile, server and online GIS software, and are moving beyond basic desktop GIS and innovating in the enterprise GIS space. Doing so not only provides solutions to clients and partners – researchers, NGOs and other user communities – but also helps prepare GIS learners for the world of enterprise computing.
See ‘Real-world’ GIS on page 41 for just a few examples of real-world GIS education taken from the set of university groups designated as Esri Development Centers.
Gradually, we are seeing a shift from student projects based on single-user desktop GIS analysis, to distributed systems and geoprocessing. In many cases desktop GIS performs the heavy lifting of geoprocessing and then publishes results as webmaps, crafted to maximise comprehension by the public or politicians. GIS instruction built around these enterprise projects allows students to work in small competitive teams, hackathon-style. The GIS classroom is evolving.