Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wanted Geography Clerks

A job announcement in the GIS Jobs Clearinghouse:

Wanted Geography Clerk: U.S. Census Bureau, Bothell, WA

Reviews source material and identifies the features requiring updates. Moves, reshapes, adds, and deletes features, updates line features, and address information. Uses source materials, various program files, and menu selections to effect updates. Sorts, files, or assembles various documents for further use in Geography operations and performs miscellaneous clerical activities, as needed.

It something of a relief to know that one of the world's most technological advanced nations still has need for clerks. Let's face it. Lot's of jobs even in high-tech are clerical in nature but considering the obsession with political correctness in America, one would have thought that the word clerk would be banished by now. How about: Wanted: Data developer and file relocation specialist. But the wheels of government turn exceedingly slowly even in the United States, and so a few clerks do make it now and then in a high tech job list.

GIS Jobs Clearinghouse is a fascinating website. It's a job board but in its style it is very mid 90's, reminiscent of the early days of the Internet. No style sheets, no ASP, no imagery and no gimmicks. Just a list created in plain old HTML. But what a penetrating glimpse into the American economy. GIS stands for geographic information systems, a technology to create, manage, analyze and produce maps of spatial data. GIS is used as a tool for varied applications, ranging from urban planning to demographic studies to epidemiology to forestry to electrical utility management. Traditionally a tool used by government institutes involved in natural resource management, the use of GIS has penetrated deep into the private business sector as well. GIS makes complex spatial patterns easier to understand, something which is critical for business decision making and so the private industry has embraced the technology for varied applications. Here are few example from GIS Jobs Clearinghouse.

GIS Analyst, Ecology and Environment, Inc, Buffalo, New York

GIS Analyst, Children's Environmental Health Initiative, Durham, NC

Demographic & Mapping Analyst, Newspaper Services of America, Downers Grove, IL

GIS Layer Developer, Global Energy Decisions, Boulder, CO

A few years ago in 2005 I gave a talk to the Rotary Club, Pune on GIS. It was a standard spiel on the wonders of GIS but at the end I showed a revealing graphic, a comparison of the GIS job market in the U.S and India. Only the private sector was compared since data on Indian government job vacancies was hard to come by. My interest was not in the size of the market but in what way is the private sector using GIS. This information I could glean from the job announcements, in the expected job duties section. A 3 month snap shot was taken from several online job boards. Take a look below:

In the U.S. besides a great demand for high-end application developers the other main thrust area was analysis of data. It is in this area that science graduates find employment. If you scroll down GIS jobs clearinghouse you will be struck by the number of GIS analyst positions. What's in a name you'll say, but this position announcement is a rough guide to the diverse ways GIS is utilized in the U.S.

As the figure to the left shows (updated to Dec 2007), all sectors make use of the GIS analyst. Geologists, urban planners, ecologists, biologists, image specialists all are employed for projects that utilize their science training along with GIS for solving real world problems. I can say from personal experience that it is a very satisfying and enriching work atmosphere. In India, along with application development the other thrust area was data conversion. This has been powered by the outsourcing revolution whereby hundreds to thousands of college graduates no matter what their background sit and churn out data mostly for foreign clients. Employment for science graduates in jobs that make use of their science training were far and few between.

Three years later I decided to revisit this comparison when I saw the job vacancy for the geography clerk. Maybe things were changing in India. Again only the private sector is compared over a time period from Oct 2007 to early Jan 2008.

In India, the data conversion juggernaut still rolls on while the demand for science skills is disappointingly low. Some conversations I had with colleagues in the GIS industry and alumni from GIS training institutes seem to confirm my little data collection spree. Most graduates get offered data conversion jobs, only a few get to do real analytical work. There are many reasons for this. Until recently there has been a lack of awareness in much of the private sector about the power of GIS. The government controls much of the base data on natural resources, urban plans, topography and difficulties in getting hold of data in a timely manner has slowed the use of GIS. Our environmental permitting regime has not been very strict, many would say it has been an eyewash. This has meant that companies traditionally did not take environmental impact assessments seriously enough to use detailed and often expensive GIS methods. And finally the government itself has not leveraged the true potential of GIS. In the U.S. government organizations of all levels, from municipalities, state government agencies to federal agencies all use GIS for various purposes. Such a dependence has lead to a flowering of private companies offering all sorts of specialized services to the government. In India such a synergy with the private sector has not developed to its full potential. It has been very hard in India to set up a profitable GIS company that exclusively offers high end analytical and modeling services. Most companies involved in GIS use a profit making data conversion section to sustain a smaller analysis section or in many cases GIS is just one part of a wider IT offering. To be a little optimistic, in all these areas some major progress is underway. Awareness is growing and sectors such as telecom and infrastructure are leading the way in GIS applications. These are sectors with deep pockets and in the absence of data they have resorted to creating base data from scratch. Government is slowly relinquishing its control on data and making it available through online clearinghouses such as the Environmental Information Centre and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, although the latter online data clearinghouse was not working last time I checked. And environmental impact assessments are now mandatory for clearing any significant development project. This should give impetus to smaller more specialized companies to enter the fray. As the government gets more involved in the use of GIS, there is likely to a parallel growth of the private sector not just as data creators but as suppliers of science backed specialized solutions. The 2008 trend should be seen as an industry in transition. Hopefully by the time of my next survey in a few years, the science graduates will find their skills in demand from the Indian GIS industry.

In the meantime, data conversion jobs will at least for the near to mid term will continue to be the main employer in the GIS business. I was struck by this job announcement

Wanted GIS Executive, New Delhi
Duties: Digitization:- Digitization of Raster Images to produce output in Vector format

Just a routine clerical job. But in this era of India Shining, GIS Executive sounds so much better.

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