Academics & Research / Spring 2019

Geographic information systems: an in-demand science career

As a GIS specialist with South Metro Fire and Rescue in Denver, Heather Hoelting uses geographic information systems (GIS) every day. Using technology to overlay maps with other types of data, she is able to track changing addresses and borders, the locations of fire hydrants and water mains, traffic patterns that are likely to cause delays in emergency response, and even how to access specific holes on a golf course in case of a tee-box disaster.

“GIS is so diverse in what it can do, from government applications or how health care uses GIS for mapping outbreaks and things like that,” she says. “Multiple different disciplines use GIS, and it just so happens that I found the emergency management side of things. The data I work with is used by dispatching and the firefighters and paramedics in their mobile units so they know where they are and how to get to the emergency.”

When it came time to enhance her geographic information skills, as well as her job prospects, Hoelting turned to the GIS master’s program in DU’s Department of Geography and the Environment. Operated in partnership with University College, DU’s continuing-education arm, the program allows students to take classes online or on campus. Propelled by ever-improving technology, as well as a growing number of workplace applications, the popularity of GIS classes is at an all-time high, says Mike Keables, chairman of the geography department.

“The program is being driven by the career options in GIS, which is being driven by society’s need to have access to this kind of data,” Keables says, adding that the Department of Labor has identified GIS as one of the three hottest science career fields, along with nanotechnology and biotechnology.

“It used to be if you wanted to know the kinds of things we can do now, you’d pull out three or four different maps and spread them out over a table and they wouldn’t be the same scale and they’d be [from] different dates,” he says. “Now, everything is spatially located, so you’re looking at the same thing at the same time in the same place. Up until recently, we haven’t been able to do that. The more people use it and realize what they can do with it, there’s a growing need for people who are able to do it.”

Simply put, GIS is a framework for gathering and analyzing data that combines spatial locations with other types of information. Its applications can be as simple as the app on your cell phone that overlays a highway map with real-time traffic information, or as complex as a series of maps that show how population growth affects grass and tree growth in a specific area over time.

Tracking the relationship between population and vegetation is a specialty of associate geography professor Rebecca Powell, one of the DU faculty members who works with GIS master’s students. She is a contributor on several interdisciplinary projects that investigate ecosystem change in a variety of regions worldwide, including the Amazon floodplain, East African savannas and North American forests. She says advances in technology have expanded the possibilities of GIS for researchers, as well as for students.

“When I started grad school, Google Earth did not exist,” she says. “We had relatively coarse spatial-resolution imagery, meaning you couldn’t see things like houses or streets very clearly in the data. I worked on the Amazon rainforest for my PhD, and there was very little high-resolution spatial imagery available. Today, I can give my students an image anywhere in the world, and they can learn about that place by zooming there on Google Earth. The technology has changed a ton.”

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