The U.S. Forest Service uses it to help fight fires, build trails, and protect wildlife. Fast-food chains rely on it to track sales and predict the most profitable sites to build new restaurants. Electric companies depend on it to shorten the duration of power outages and improve response times.
Welcome to the expanding field of Geospatial Information Science (GIS), in which state-of-the-art technology — including the global positioning system (GPS), remote sensing, and geographic information systems — is used to gather information related to the Earth’s surface and then combine it with social, economic, environmental, and other data. Experts in the field gather, store, analyze, and use the information extensively in research, business, government, nonprofit organizations, and more.
“GIS and geospatial technology are used almost everywhere — from forestry to marketing to public health. The opportunities and possibilities are vast,” says Eric S. West, associate professor of geography, who spoke to students about the field and Southern’s new minor in Geospatial Information Science and Technology.
Launched in the fall 2014 semester, the minor requires the completion of 18 credits. Students take two core courses — “Maps and Map Making Technology” and “Introduction to GIS” — and complete a minimum of seven credits, choosing from electives such as “Remote Sensing” and “Cartography.” A capstone experience — a culminating course and/or an internship — furthers students’ knowledge.
Southern formally celebrated the introduction of the minor on GIS Day, held on November 19. Students from numerous majors enjoyed presentations from two alumni, who discussed how maps and geographic information systems are used at their organizations: Ethan Hutchings, ’08, manager of operations for the city of New Haven’s Transportation Department, and Marwin Gonzalez, ’08, the GIS project manager at New England GeoSystems (NEGEO). Both majored in geography and studied with West.
“If you start to think spatially, you open up your world tremendously,” says Gonzalez. In addition to working at NEGEO where he conducts GIS projects for municipalities and regional planning agencies, Gonzalez is a marketing GIS coordinator for LEGO KidsFest and teaches at Central Connecticut State University. “I challenge my students to give me a field or career that does not use GPS,” he says. During his presentation, he highlighted numerous real-life applications for geospatial information science and technology. Examples include determining the amount of sand needed by a city snowplow driver and creating ways to securely store maps and other data for city water systems. He notes that the latter is critical in light of terrorism concerns.
The outlook for those employed in the field is bright, with an average salary of $82,340 in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Alumnus Ethan Hutchings parlayed a successful internship obtained with the assistance of Associate Professor of Geography C. Patrick Heidkamp into a career with the city of New Haven. Hutchings initially attended the University of Maine, majoring in forestry and wildlife. The fit wasn’t ideal, and he left school and ultimately traveled across the U.S. and internationally, visiting Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Vietnam. When he later took an introductory geography course at Gateway College, he knew he had found his niche and transferred to Southern where he completed his B.S. in geography.
As the manager of operations for New Haven’s Department of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking, Hutchings developed ways to help the city effectively manage data generated through SeeClickFix, which lets residents use cell phones and other technology to report non-emergency issues — like potholes or broken parking meters. He says GIS plays a major role in helping cities and businesses address peoples’ needs and concerns. For example, he notes that electronic parking meters provide a wealth of information. “They can tell us all sorts of things . . . how many people used a space in an eight-hour period . . . how they paid,” he says. “We can look at that data and determine locations where we need more meters. GIS has helped the city do a lot of interesting things.”
West concurs: “GIS has transformed the way organizations operate and the way people in organizations handle their work flow. We are excited about propelling students forward in their knowledge of GIS and geospatial technology, and working with them to customize their education in a way that will have a positive impact on their careers.”