As a geographical information systems officer, you'll need sharp observation and good project management skills to combine working in the field with analytical work in the office
Geographic information systems (GIS) are computerised systems used to collect, store, analyse, manipulate and present a range of complex geographical and spatial data. Data can come in a range of formats including cartographic, photographic, digital (for example, from satellites) and remote sensing, or in tables and spreadsheets.
Using GIS technology, a GIS officer can overlay all these types of data into one map, manipulating it so that all the sources have the same scales and allowing complex readings to be taken from the map.
GIS technology can use any information that includes a location, allowing you to compare and contrast a range of information, including:
- the location of rivers, roads or power lines
- the position of streets and buildings
- information about soil type and vegetation
- data on people, population distribution, education and income.
By studying this information using a range of specialist computer applications, you'll analyse patterns and better understand relationships and the implications of proposed developments and changes.
The information is used in most sectors of government, commerce and industry, for example defence, meteorology, oil, gas, telecommunications and infrastructure, to make decisions about long-term planning and development.
Job titles vary and can include GIS/spatial/geospatial/location analyst, GIS technician, mapping technician, GIS data specialist or GIS application specialist.
As a GIS officer, you'll be involved in both the collection of geographical and spatial information and its storage, analysis and presentation. You'll need to:
- use a range of GPS tools in the field to capture the location of 'assets' such as bridges, street lights, road barriers and flood defences
- undertake desk-based data capture (digitising) to convert paper maps to GIS datasets to, for example, record the location of telecoms cables or water pipelines from original maps.
- create and maintain the structures necessary for GIS data storage
- develop tools for loading/transferring GIS data between different systems
- manipulate, analyse and present geographical information by creating programs to convert GIS information from one format to another
- develop internet apps to present GIS data and tools on corporate websites
- use tools to join together different GIS datasets and create new information or investigate patterns, e.g. estimating the number of people potentially affected by flooding, using population growth figures and planning information to estimate increasing/decreasing demand for school capacity or calculating the number of potential customers for a new supermarket and predicting buying patterns based on socio-economic factors.
Many of the activities are project based and involve working with clients to find out the nature and purpose of the information they require.
- Starting salaries for GIS officers typically range from £18,000 to £25,000.
- With more experience, you can earn in the region of £30,000.
- Salaries for senior level roles, such as team leader or project manager, can reach in excess of £40,000.
Salaries vary depending on your qualifications and experience, location and the sector you work in.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
A typical working day is usually 9am to 5pm, although you may need to work extra hours to meet project deadlines. Field work may involve long and irregular hours.
What to expect
- At more junior levels you're likely to take on detailed, desk-based work, but may also spend a lot of time liaising with colleagues and contacts outside the organisation.
- Some roles involve significant amounts of field work for data capture or data validation.
- With experience you may be involved in managing multidisciplinary work teams, where members have very different skills and experience.
- Travel within a working day depends on the amount of client and customer liaison work you have. You may need to spend time away from home overnight.
- With experience, there are some opportunities to take on overseas contracts, particularly in the private/consultancy sector. Countries include Australia, Canada, Europe and the USA.
The most common route into the profession is with a degree or postgraduate qualification in a relevant subject such as:
- computer sciences
- geographical information systems
- maths or statistics
- software engineering
- urban planning.
HNDs and foundation degrees in relevant areas are accepted by some employers. Applicants with extensive relevant work-based experience may also be accepted.
Depending on the sector you're applying to, an understanding of other areas, such as retail or economics, can be useful. Specific entry requirements vary between employers, so check job adverts to find out what they're looking for in terms of qualifications and skills.
Introductory courses for those with no knowledge of GIS systems are run by a number of organisations. See the Association for Geographic Information (AGI) for details.
Employers may favour candidates with a relevant postgraduate qualification (for example GIS or remote sensing) and further study is particularly useful if you want to progress into a management position in the future. Some employers may encourage you to get a postgraduate qualification alongside your work.
You'll need to have:
- strong written and oral communication skills
- IT skills, including the use and manipulation of complex databases and spreadsheets
- knowledge of specialised software packages such as ArcGIS or ESRI
- numerical skills with the ability to analyse data and statistics
- the ability to translate client requirements into working solutions
- familiarity with Ordnance Survey mapping and digitising techniques
- presentation skills
- project management skills
- self-motivation and a proactive attitude to work
- attention to detail
- teamworking skills and the ability to work independently
- the ability to work well under pressure.
Competition for GIS roles can be fierce, so having work experience, as well as a relevant qualification, can provide you with an advantage. Make use of sandwich-year placements to develop your practical skills and to make contacts within the industry or look for vacation placements and other forms of work experience.
Approach your local council, environment agency or nature organisation to ask about doing some voluntary work and see if you can work shadow a GIS officer to find out more about the role.
GIS officers work for a range of organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors that need to relate physical information (for example, the location of properties, quality of land, placement of utility cables) to other economic, environmental and social data (for example, the density of population, anticipated social and healthcare needs of that population).
Typical employers include:
- government departments
- research organisations
- utility companies, such as gas, electricity and water
- architecture and engineering firms
- telecommunications companies
- retail organisations, including financial and leisure services
- environmental consultancies
- insurance companies
- police authorities and emergency services, including all the motor vehicle rescue services and the armed forces
- market research groups and advertising agencies
- private healthcare companies
- non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
You can also work for a GIS consultancy, which tend to specialise in one or more specific areas such as natural resources and the environment, military, utilities, oil and gas, or property.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Earthworks Jobs - UK and overseas roles.
- Jobs.ac.uk - for research and lecturing jobs in higher education.
You can also find vacancies by using LinkedIn.
Recruitment agencies specialising in IT, surveying and scientific jobs may advertise vacancies, particularly for management-level jobs.
The majority of training takes place on the job, although some large employers may provide in-house training. Software developers who introduce new programs for GIS provide training in the use of these packages.
Further training in programming, communication and project management, or training in the knowledge of specific sectors, may also be helpful. You'll need to be prepared to acquire whatever skills are needed as the work develops.
Memberships of relevant bodies such as the Association for Geographic Information (AGI) and the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) can also help with professional development. For example, the AGI runs a continuing professional development (CPD) scheme to help members develop and record their learning and professional skills over time. They also advertise a range of CPD courses.
With experience, you may become eligible for chartered geographer status (CGeog) with the RGS-IBG and the use of the post-nominal CGeog (GIS). For full details of eligibility criteria, see RGS-IBG: Chartered Geographer. The AGI works with RGS-IBG to ensure that the AGI CPD scheme supports your application.
As there's no typical route for career development, career progression can depend on where you start. Teams are often made up of a range of professionals including cartographers, computer programmers, data analysts, information officers/managers and project managers. You may be able to progress on to team leader, project manager and then to overall GIS manager, although there are other possibilities.
With so many areas to choose from, successful career development depends on clarifying your own interests early on. You could choose to focus on one of the following areas:
- applications development
- information management within the public or commercial sectors
- sales and marketing
- spatial analysis.
You could also combine a career in GIS with other interests. As the world becomes more mobile, the rise of applications using GPS (global positioning systems), such as geotagging photographs and augmented reality, could lead to new uses for GIS and opportunities in the field. There are also opportunities to move into research or work in higher education as a lecturer.
Once you've gained experience, you may decide to work freelance or set up your own consultancy business.