This story originally appeared on Elmhurst Patch on December 9, 2010.
Everyone has been on the other end of a telemarketing call. Back in the old days, telemarketers would make calls by referencing random phone numbers from a mathematical list.
Nowadays, those calls are not random at all. Telemarketers are calling potential customers based on information they have about not only their buying habits, but their geographic location. Savvy marketers have long taken advantage of geographic information systems to pinpoint potential customers.
"Location is becoming more important in our society," said Richard Schultz, associate professor of geography and geosciences at Elmhurst College. "Whether it's using a GPS device to get us where we need to go or the city of Elmhurst using digital coordinates to determine where to put road signs, geospatial data is making the world a smaller place."
GIS melds old-fashioned map-making know-how and statistical data, such as population numbers and addresses, with cutting-edge database technology to create digital maps. For example, JULIE Inc. uses GIS technology to provide information for safe digging to homeowners and professional excavators.
The challenge, Schultz said, is to obtain accurate and quality data for input into the system. Otherwise, glitches can occur and render information useless.
"Anyone can make a map, but everyone doesn't have the ability to make a good map," Schultz said.
That's what happens when your GPS sends you down the wrong highway, he said.
Leading the Revolution
Now, thanks to a $150,000 federal grant from the National Spatial Data Infrastructure program, Schultz and Assistant Professor Carmi Neiger, in partnership with the Champaign County (Illinois) Regional Planning Commission, will help train GIS professionals to evaluate the quality of their data. One such workshop is already scheduled at Elmhurst College on April 28. This could map the way for the state of Illinois to eliminate errors and potentially set national standards for GIS data.
"People who work in the industry have a difficult time describing exactly what it is that we do," Schultz said.
But reaching an industry-wide consensus that defines "geospatial," its technologies and its applications is of utmost importance to enhance decision making, he said.
Geospatial Professionals Wanted
Once a niche technology, GIS is revolutionizing the way people view the world and the way businesses and governments operate.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor declared three industries as having high job growth potential. Geospatial technology ranked third after health care and nanotechnology (the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale).
Elmhurst College is becoming a leader among academic institutions in the development of GIS technology. It currently offers a minor in GIS and is one of only a handful of colleges in the world with a computer server capable of providing hands-on experience. Students from around the world can tap into Elmhurst's GIS software and a database that includes the vast resources of the U.S. Census Bureau, giving them the tools to create sophisticated, highly detailed maps.
"The more I learn about the geospatial technologies community, the more motivated I am to continue to develop our program here at Elmhurst College for the benefit of students," Schultz said. "It appears to be a thriving market on the upswing with great future employment potential."
Fall 2011 will see the unveiling of a new major in applied geospatial technologies, Schultz said. It's nearly five years in the making.
"We are excited at the possibilities that students may double major in other traditional areas, such as business, urban studies and the sciences, as well as new, more focused areas such as supply chain management and transportation logistics," he said. "The marriage between these disciplines and geospatial technologies would provide students with more marketability and some very useful spatial skill sets as they graduate and embark upon an employment search. GIS may even be a tool to help them with that first job search as well."