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The Basic Knowledge for a Geospatial Newbie

What is the basic skill set required for our profession? Of course, the geospatial community is vast with many specialisms within it, from data collection, data management, data analysis and data display. I try to keep abreast of everything, but of course this is not really possible. The industry moves very quickly and technology leaps ahead all the time. However when we start out early in our careers, there are probably some things we should know. The rest, we can learn as we go along.

Knowing where the data has come from

The ways of gathering spatial data are increasing as technology improves. Even if you are not the one out there capturing the data, knowing the method can be very insightful. Take GNSS as an example. At some point we are all likely to make use of data from positioning systems, so being aware of the differences between accuracies of data from handheld recreational GNSS receivers compared to data processed using differential methods is important. And what about alternative data gathering techniques, such as crowd sourcing and space based remote sensing with nano satellites. Knowing the inherent advantages and problems of these techniques is vital.

Being a GIS monkey: data analysis

Although I am a huge proponent of open source GIS, I still consider it valuable having some working knowledge of ArcGIS. Any of us who have used it will know its quirks, and where it is likely to crash. These things are learnt through putting in the hard yards with what can sometimes be a frustrating piece of software. At the same time as being familiar with this, it is also beneficial to keep in mind where this huge industry leader is headed in the future. Whether we like it or not, ESRI products are still heavily used, and it pays us to be aware of them.

More and more businesses are going open source when it comes to making decisions about budgets. Uptake of QGIS is increasing for this very reason. As a GIS professional, it should be increasingly easy to put together a business case to ditch ESRI and go open source, because the options just keep getting better. Freely available, with a willing and helpful online support community. What more do you need?

And of course, lets not completely rely on big software packages. Quite often the job is better done using smaller, cheaper (and sometimes free) software and command line tools. So knowing these can be very advantageous. If you can churn out some custom programs and scripts, even better.

The art of cartography

Cartographic teaching is declining, but in my opinion it is still important. Whilst the days of hand drawn maps are well over, the need to present information in map form to create impact is definitely still at the forefront of the profession. Maybe these days it should be called geovisualisation rather than cartography, but ultimately, the underlying drivers are the same. It is a tall order to ask us to be experts in design and visualisation as well as geographical data wizards, but having a good understanding of how a map should be laid out and how colour is perceived is very useful. This can go as far as knowing web accessibility guidelines, as after all, our mapping products should be creating an impact on everyone.

With advances in web mapping, getting our message across with a beautiful map is becoming easier. Web mapping is a huge area of growth, so knowing your OGC standards and the difference between WMS and WCS is another useful piece of knowledge.

A key fundamental

And because the earth is not flat, the most important fundamental concepts of our profession are datums and map projections. It might be true that for many purposes, the difference between WGS84 and ITRF08 are not important. But as geospatial professionals, this should be something we are all paying critical attention to and we should know when the difference becomes important. I would argue that we should never assume it does not matter. Datums and map projections are a complicated concept. I have spent many hours scratching my head over datum transformations and what projection I should use to do certain calculations on? But at every stage our work, this is absolutely critical. From data collection, data management, data analysis and data display. And this doesn’t stop at horizontal reference frames. Know what is meant by the geoid.

The last point here is probably the most important, if I had to pick something. But all the above points are useful knowedge areas for early career geospatial professionals.

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