How do we reach and teach casual GIS users?


Simultaneously published at V1 Magazine with thanks to Matt Ball, co-founder and editor, Vector1 Media.

There are many people who don’t consider themselves geospatial professionals, but instead are casual GIS users. They probably don’t go to GIS conferences, or keep up with everything that’s happening in the field, and yet I’ll bet they perform a sizeable proportion of all of the mapping and spatial analysis tasks that are done on a given day.

As I was reading the V1 Magazine interview with Phillip Davis, director of the GeoTech Center that developed the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM), I started to think about who the model is for, and what assumptions were made as it was developed. I have a lot of admiration for the people and work that went into the GTCM as well as the related Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (BoK). I have consulted both many times, and I am sure I will continue to do so, as they are both invaluable guides for geospatial curriculum assessment and design.

The People Focus

I was struck by the fact that the GTCM is supposed to serve the two-year community college curricula, and that it was developed through workshops with GIS technicians. This indicates an emphasis on the perspective of those that are trained and identify as GIS technicians. Seeing as how previous attempts at creating a GTCM had been unsuccessful (Dr. Davis says “previous attempts became bogged down in the fundamental definition of the industry”), it is understandable that there would be a focus on the people (and their positions) that are most clearly defined.

However, what’s harder to identify and define are the people that don’t have positions with GIS in the title, but who are expected to perform GIS tasks as part of their job; that is, the GIS generalists, or casual users. These are the people that might have taken one or two GIS courses during their four-year university degree (as opposed to those who specialized in GIS at either a community college or university), and probably have some interest in GIS but that, for them, GIS is not what defines them in terms of their current position or career. It is much more challenging to figure out what they need in terms of preparation for these jobs, and what components of the GTCM are most needed.

Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM)
Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM)

Prioritizing Components

Many of the tasks performed by casual GIS users probably follow the proverbial 80/20 rule, performing 80% of their GIS tasks with 20% of the tools. The question is what components of the GTCM do they need most? How can we prioritize each tier of the GTCM, and each component of each tier, to design a GIS curriculum that will best prepare these users?

As an instructor, I have to be mindful of the fact that I am trying to design a GIS curriculum to prepare the most people with the most competencies. While doing this, I have to remember that there is a sequence of courses needed to complete the program but that many students, for any number of valid reasons, will decide at varying points along the way that one or two courses are enough instead of four or five, and will not complete that sequence. This makes curriculum design more challenging.

With reference to the GTCM, it would seem straightforward to emphasize the lower tiers, such as interpersonal skills, writing, and basic computer skills, as these will benefit virtually everyone. I’m teaching GIS courses though, so what about the higher tiers? Things like “positioning and data acquisition”, and “analysis and modeling”? Since the GTCM resembles a layer cake, perhaps we should think of individual courses as “slices” of the cake. It is not realistic to have each course in a sequence match each tier in the model, but it makes sense to select elements of each tier. As a curriculum designer, this is the tricky part, providing the casual user with enough in one or two courses to become competent in typical GIS tasks, but also establishing a foundation for those that will go on to more advanced courses.

As GIS software becomes cheaper and more user-friendly, and more casual users start to use it, we have to think about what obstacles and risks they may face in terms of learning about GIS and in performing tasks while minimizing errors. How can they identify gaps in their knowledge that might be causing inadvertent errors, slowing them down, or perhaps preventing them from completing a task at all? It may be common for specialists to wag their finger at the casual user and advise them to leave it to the pros. However, more and more people are embracing GIS, and it is to the benefit of the field for us to, in turn, embrace these casual users, and find ways to encourage and support them.