Geographic information systems (GIS) are integral in all sorts of areas from property, the environment and telecoms to name just a few
GIS are computerised systems used for the collection, storage, analysis, manipulation and presentation of complex geographical information. Although roles vary, all GIS officers are involved in the production of maps and the analysis of data.
GIS technology allows many different forms of data - such as the location of rivers and roads, or information about soil, vegetation or people - to be overlaid on top of each other on one map. The data can be manipulated so that all the sources have the same scales, allowing complex readings to be taken from the map. This enables people to analyse patterns and better understand relationships between things and the implications of proposed developments and changes.
GIS systems are employed by most sectors of government and commerce and a GIS officer may work for a range of employers.
As a variety of organisations use GIS, your day may include:
Collection of geographical information:
- capturing the location of 'assets' such as bridges, street lights, road barriers, flood defences and so on using GPS tools in the field for private companies, government agencies and local authorities;
- desk-based data capture (digitising) to convert paper maps to GIS datasets, for example, to record the location of telecoms cables or water pipelines from original maps.
Storage, analysis and presentation of geographical information:
- creating and maintaining the structures necessary for GIS data storage;
- developing the tools for loading/transferring GIS data between different systems;
- manipulation, analysis and presentation of geographical information by creating programs to convert GIS information from one format to another;
- developing internet applications to present GIS data and tools on corporate websites;
- using 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 clarify the nature and purpose of the information they require.
- The range of typical starting salaries for GIS officers is from £18,000 to £22,000.
- Salaries for those with three to five years' experience are £23,000 to £30,000.
- Typical salaries at senior level/with experience are £35,000+.
Roles in London can command a higher salary.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
A typical working day is usually 9am to 5pm but, as with other project-based work, this may vary according to project deadlines.
What to expect
- At more junior levels, the GIS officer role requires close, detailed PC-based work, but may also involve a lot of liaising with colleagues and contacts outside the organisation.
- Some roles may involve significant amounts of field work for data capture or data validation.
- A GIS officer may be involved in managing multidisciplinary work teams, where members have very different skills and experience. This may be challenging but also very stimulating.
- Travel within a working day depends on how much client and customer liaison work the officer is involved in. With some posts, this may be quite frequent.
- Absence from home overnight is likely in some posts.
- Overseas contracts are a possibility, particularly in the private/consultancy sector, but travel is infrequent.
While HNDs and/or a foundation degree in related subjects may be useful, the most common route into the profession is with a degree or postgraduate qualification in GIS, geography or computer sciences.
Even though many geography degrees now include GIS modules, and many computer science degrees provide a range of programming and applications skills, GIS degrees offer the best mix of skills and knowledge with most departments boasting links with industry. However, depending on the position, an understanding or expertise in other areas, such as retail or economics, could prove beneficial. Specific entry requirements vary between employers.
A range of postgraduate GIS courses are available. Employers tend to favour candidates who offer postgraduate qualifications and they are highly desirable for anyone who wants to obtain a management position in the future. Some employers may support and encourage you to obtain postgraduate qualifications alongside working. Search for postgraduate courses in GIS.
As this occupation becomes more established and competitive, it's likely to become more difficult for people with less relevant qualifications to gain entry, therefore you'll need to show:
- strong written and oral communication skills, as well as presentation skills;
- motivation and a pro-active attitude;
- the ability to translate requirements into working solutions;
- computer skills including the use of complex databases and spreadsheets, and specific software such as ArcGIS;
- that you are highly numerate and able to analyse data and statistics;
- the ability to work well under pressure.
Work experience and sandwich-year placements may provide an advantage in job applications and are especially useful to graduates aiming to progress into GIS management in the future.
Undertaking some voluntary work with a local council, environment agency or nature organisation can be helpful in strengthening your application for employment.
Positions can be highly competitive as GIS becomes a more popular subject to study.
With many organisations needing to relate physical information (e.g. the location of properties, quality of land, placement of utility cables) to other economic and social data (e.g. the density of population, anticipated social and healthcare needs of that population), GIS officers have the possibility of working for a range of organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors, including:
- utility companies, such as gas, electricity and water;
- telecommunications companies;
- retail organisations, including financial and leisure services;
- 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).
GIS consultancies 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:
For management-level jobs, recruitment agencies that specialise in IT, surveying and scientific jobs may be helpful.
The majority of training is 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.
Because the profession is multidisciplinary in its scope, further training in programming, communication and project management, or training in the knowledge of the specific sectors may be helpful.
Many people working in GIS report that they and the job have developed at the same time, so it is not so much a case of training for a specific role as being prepared to acquire whatever skills are necessary as the work develops.
The Association for Geographic Information (AGI) has a Continual Professional Development (CPD) scheme which is free for members to join, while chartered geographer status (CGeog (GIS)) is offered by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Candidates must have six or more years of direct GI experience and must hold an honours degree or BEd in Geography or a related subject, or have 15 years of geographical experience.
As there is no typical route for career development, career progression depends on where you start. In GIS, teams are often made up of a range of professionals including cartographers, computer programmers, data analysts, information officers/managers and project managers. If there is any such thing as a typical route for a GIS officer, it might be to progress on to project manager and then to overall GIS manager, although there are other possibilities.
With so many areas to choose from, within the public, private and third sectors, successful career development depends on clarifying your own particular 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.
There’s even the potential to combine a career in GIS with other interests or passions. As the world becomes more mobile, the rise of applications utilising GPS (global positioning systems), such as geotagging photographs and augmented reality, could lead to new uses for GIS and opportunities in the field.
After gaining significant experience, some GIS officers progress into a GIS manager role, or move into other project management work outside GIS. You could freelance, or set up your own consultancy business. Alternatively, go back to education - new GIS modules in computer science and geography degrees as well as in postgraduate courses present a few opportunities in academia.
When searching for jobs, roles within GIS have many different titles, such as:
- GIS/spatial/geospatial/location analyst;
- GIS technician/mapping technician;
- GIS data specialist/specialist;
- GIS application specialist;
- engineering aide/technician.
There are also opportunities to work overseas once you have gained experience. Australia, Canada, Europe and the USA are all widening the applications of GIS and offer some employment possibilities.