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Geospatial skills will underpin everything – how the UK can benefit

Profile of By Ed Parsons
By Ed Parsons
Geospatial Technologist, GoogleEd Parsons is the Geospatial Technologist of Google, with responsibility for evangelising Google’s mission to organise the world’s information using geography. In this role, he maintains links with Governments, Universities, Research and Standards Organisations which are involved in the development of Geospatial Technology. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Open Geospatial Consortium and was co-chair of the W3C/OGC Spatial Data on the Web Working Group.

On a train journey, do you read a book or look out of the window?

That was a question asked of me by an admissions tutor at an unnamed university many years ago, and I think it’s rather profound, for it is the Geographer who looks out of the window and is it their mind answering the question – why does the world look like it does? From the shape of a river valley to the location of a mega data center, it is geography that underpins the shape of the modern world.

Geographers will be in the driving seat when it comes to the UK’s future economy. With an increase in the adoption of geospatial technologies, geography skills will continue to grow in demand.

Over 10% of the British economy is reportedly reliant on the use of geographic data. Just look at the rise of Uber – instead of cars roaming cities and waiting for passengers, the company uses GPS to match available vehicles with potential passengers as soon as someone clicks to ‘go home’. It now has an estimated 110 million users worldwide.

Aerial view of cityscape with graphic treatment
Over 10% of the British economy is reportedly reliant on the use of geographic data.

Such use of geospatial data may transform the way we live. A more efficient model of mobility with greater use of public transport and shared services reducing private car ownership may fundamentally change the shape of our cities. Alongside this, changes in patterns of working resulting from the networked economy mean the traditional office and car park might disappear, replaced by smaller, mixed-use developments.

The ability to analyse data and think of it in terms of societal context is increasingly valuable – and it is exactly what geographers excel in. This year, over 95% of geography graduates were in employment or further study within six months of finishing their degree. Geographical and geospatial skills are clearly becoming more prevalent in roles across various sectors and disciplines as our reliance on location data grows.

The ultimate challenge for the geospatial sector is recognising that we need both the quantitative skills in data management often taught in Geographic Information System (GIS) classes, and the qualitative less precise understanding of societal impact than is common with geographers. This ability to interrogate and integrate datasets to form a bigger picture comes from the experience of studying geography. Often physics students drift into roles with geospatial technologies, but we need geographers too.

Two women talking in a meeting
The ability to interrogate and integrate datasets to form a bigger picture comes from the experience of studying geography.

This challenge is causing an apparent skills gap in the workforce. The geospatial industry is a rewarding and exciting sector to build a career in, but there needs to be more support to encourage interest and the retention of skilled individuals.

Currently in the UK, we are fortunate that geography is encouraged at school, and university admissions are maintained at a healthy rate. However, the public image of geography can be old and outdated – many still think of geography as what they learnt at school, or simply as my daughter once described it ‘colouring in well’.

In reality, the profession is anything but outdated. Geospatial is a growing industry – both in the UK and overseas – and is behind exciting technologies and applications that are changing our daily lives. We all have the opportunity to refresh this image of geography by showcasing just how vital new geospatial technologies will be and the role geographers play in their development. The technical skills on offer in formal education and in the workplace need to better reflect the real opportunity.

Supporting innovation in the geospatial sector by encouraging geography uptake and interest is key to supporting the industry’s future. Location data is a foundation for decision-making across sectors and geospatial skills offer a wealth of opportunities. The businesses and leaders that need them the most must help to drive this.

Profile of By Ed Parsons
By Ed Parsons
Geospatial Technologist, GoogleEd Parsons is the Geospatial Technologist of Google, with responsibility for evangelising Google’s mission to organise the world’s information using geography. In this role, he maintains links with Governments, Universities, Research and Standards Organisations which are involved in the development of Geospatial Technology. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Open Geospatial Consortium and was co-chair of the W3C/OGC Spatial Data on the Web Working Group.