What Does a GIS Specialist Do?

GIS specialist create digital maps that contain spatial data in a usable format.
GIS specialists typically work in an office setting.
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  • Written By: Andrew Tanner
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 04 April 2014
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A geographic information systems (GIS) specialist typically uses computer software in conjunction with geographic methods to organize and display data in a useful format. The ability of computer systems to process and manipulate complex data has provided geographers new ways to compare related statistics and incorporate them into functional maps. GIS specialists are commonly employed across a number of governmental and private industries. Their duties typically include manipulating hard data as it relates to geographical measures to create a useful overview of information for the business or company at hand.

GIS is a practical application of geographic information science, which in turn is the part of geography that is most concerned with the best means of providing spatial and geostatistical data in a usable format. Prior to the advent of computer systems and specialized GIS software, the amount of data that could be shown on a map — the basic tool of a geographer — was limited by space and ease of use. Special software translates databases that contain many statistics into customizable maps. Demographic, economic, and terrain features are a few of the data sets that can be manipulated in a GIS system. A specialist can tell the software what type of data to display at any given time and on what scale to achieve a better picture of how the various statistics interact with each another.


A GIS specialist can be employed in virtually any industry that has a vested interest in better understanding the interactions of demographics, terrain, and regional infrastructure while optimizing business practices. For example, a manufacturer might want to know where it would be best to build a facility to take advantage of natural resources, road networks, and a skilled workforce. A retail chain or restaurant that wants to expand might want to understand the competition in a given city and the average income of the city's residents. A governmental agency involved in environmental regulation could want to see how a proposed development could impact the migration patterns of wildlife in the area. In each case, a specialist using GIS software would most likely be the expert to assess these questions and produce maps and reports based on available statistics.

While an undergraduate degree in geography could prepare a person for this job, many employers look for a candidate who has a master's degree in geography with a focus or specific certification in geographic information systems. A background in spatial statistics also could be helpful in securing employment. The GIS Certification Institute is one organization that offers a GIS certification program.


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Post 4

I was wondering about places that you could find GIS training. The article mentioned the GIS Certification Institute. I had never heard of it, but will definitely check it out.

One of the problems with practicing your GIS skills is that ArcGIS, the main program used for GIS is very expensive. They have a lot of online training programs, though, that help you learn the software.

There are also some open source GIS programs, but I don't have much experience with them. I hear a lot of people talk about MapWindow. Has anyone ever used it before? How easy is it to transition from ArcMap to MapWindow? Are there any other good open source programs that someone can use that doesn't have the money for ArcGIS?

Post 3

@jcraig - I think titans62 about covered it. There are a ton of fields you can get into with GIS skills. Major in whatever you like and then find a way to incorporate GIS into it (within reason). Obviously, there's not much need for GIS in English or philosophy, but you get the idea.

As far as salary goes, that really all just depends on your industry. If you have an engineering degree, you'll end up making more money than someone in wildlife research. In the end though, make sure you choose a field you'll enjoy working in, not just something that will make the most money.

Post 2

@jcraig - You don't necessarily have to be a geography major to have a GIS specialization. At least at my school, you can be in a lot of different departments and take classes offered by the geography department to teach you GIS skills. A lot of places will also have a certificate or special program so that after you graduate, you can show employers that you have a specialization in GIS programs.

As far as other fields and goes, almost everyone needs GIS maps now. Engineering is a popular field, since they need maps to show suitable areas for roads or buildings. If you're more interested in science, most natural resource or environmental science programs have a lot of GIS classes you can take where you interpret pictures for endangered species research, or forestry, or a whole range of other things.

Post 1

I had never heard about GIS until recently. In my high school computer programming class, we had someone come talk to us about GIS. He was a former student that had graduated from my school and was studying geography. It sounded really interesting. I always wondered how people made maps and things like that on the computer.

He talked a little bit about what classes and skills you need to get a GIS specialist job, but I've been wondering about some things. First off, do you always have to be in geography to get a degree in GIS? I'm not really a fan of geography. What are some of the other majors you could study and still use GIS? Also, how much is a GIS specialist's salary?

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