The words “problem,” “solving,” and “GIS” are often used together. GIS is regularly touted as a technology that helps people solve problems. If the problem is that a wilderness search and rescue team needs help identifying a location suitable to land a helicopter, GIS can help with that. If you are a political campaign manager and you want to understand the socio-economic demographic patterns of the people who have been donating to your campaign, GIS has your back. Do you have multiple years’ worth of classified land use, land cover data covering the same geographic area and you need to quantify and qualify the changes? Hit the GIS Easy button.
In reality, however, reaching solutions happens that directly and easily only in the marketing brochures. The actual real-world process will be characterized by stumbles, a hassle or two, and a few work-arounds. Regular practitioners know the tremendous amount of work that a GIS project can represent in terms of question clarification and refinement, data collection and management, and software skill acquisition and application, among countless other tasks.
Content analysis of job ads for the geospatial sciences and technologies regularly identifies problem-solving as a highly desirable skill. Is this because employers know that GIS is a technology that helps people solve problems? Yes, but that’s not what the employer meant. What employers know is that GIS analysts (and technicians, developers, educators, directors, etc.) are worth their weight in gold when they themselves are good at solving the problems that they will inevitably encounter over the course of their work flow. Some problems may seem trivial within the context of the whole project, such as wrangling with those last two addresses that fail to geocode or trying to remove items from a crowded map legend, but in their moment, any snafu can be frustrating and bewildering.
Some people are naturally comfortable with rolling up their sleeves and trouble-shooting whatever may come their way, while others freak out at the first sign of a red exclamation point next to their file’s name. Such unevenness is one factor that makes an excellent introductory GIS class a challenging one to design and deliver. Non-excellent introductory GIS classes are much easier to offer. Place neatly organized folders of pre-formatted data on a server. Hand students printed copies of lab activities with step-by-step, click-by-click software instructions. Wait 50 minutes. Inquire about the approach they took to solving the problem. Receive blank stares.
Canned-data exercises are a bread-and-butter staple of most introductory GIS classes. If you’ve ever had 30 novice students in front of computer screens at the same time, and you’ve drafted an aspirational lesson plan indicating that students will demonstrate their understanding of a distance-decay pattern as applied to a point-source pollution scenario, you’re going to use pre-prepared, canned data. In such cases it’s a matter of sanity-keeping, so that you have the stamina to return to the classroom the next day, even though you know, deep down inside, that GIS students will be better served in the long run if they are forced to figure things out on their own. Give someone a folder of data, they can make one map. Give them skills to find and fix their own data, they can become mappers.
This is why problem-solving is such an in-demand skill for those seeking GIS jobs. Confidence and competence at troubleshooting issues might make the difference between reaching a solution, or not, but it will definitely make a difference in the quality of your own work-life experiences. Accept the fact that once you leave the canned and controlled environment you will run into problems, technical or otherwise. As Tora Johnson, an associate professor of GIS at the University of Maine-Machias, puts it, students must learn to expect novel problems and novel data, again and again. Johnson is known for her dedication to a heuristic educational approach in which students are expected, from day one, to develop their wherewithal and chutzpah at being independent problem-solvers. In practice, this means less hand-holding and students taking greater-than-average responsibility for their own learning. When — not if — you encounter a dialog prompt that you don’t understand or aren’t certain what analytical step is necessary next, don’t first raise your hand. Have you read through the online Help? Have you tried clicking through a few of the options to see if you can glean some insights? Have you talked it through with someone else in your class who is probably in the same boat?
Having these sorts of skills becomes especially valuable when there is no one nearby to consult. Hundreds of rural counties, small non-profits and local agencies might have one person considered “the” GIS person, and that person might have taken one single Intro to GIS class during their educational training or be self-taught. Or, these are ancillary users whose main job titles have little to do with GIS, but yet they must still and occasionally engage with geospatial technologies. This is when being an independent problem-solver can be most critical and may be the most important skill to cultivate. Don’t bother memorizing how to import archaic file formats, or re-project between datums, or download raw Census data. It’s a futile way to spend your time. Instead, know that you will encounter atypical file formats and, with some Internet-searches, can probably figure out a way to extract their data, though it might require several intermediate steps. Know what a datum is, that it matters, and that it will likely be possible to reconcile the differences, though it might require some metadata research and several intermediate steps. Know that there are more Census variables in more combinations then you could ever use in your lifetime, and the exact one you want is probably within the top 50 that many others have already downloaded, prepared for GIS use, and made readily available from a number of places other than the Census mothership. Choose your battles.
Problem-based learning is one way to nurture these skills as an instructor, and there is some evidence that students may develop higher-order thinking skills along the way. If this all makes sense to you but you are anxious about deviating from the safety net of cookbook exercises with canned data, consider modifying just one or two lab activities. You may find inspiration in Jeff Howarth’s description of his GIS instructional strategies at Middlebury College; his methods of assessment are one effective way to measure whether students are able to transfer their problem-solving skills to novel situations and novel data.
Having the capability to diagnose, triage and solve problems is a work (and life) skill that differentiates novices from experts, and that’s not unique for the geospatial sciences and technologies. But this domain is complex, the technologies evolve constantly, and dependencies across knowledge areas are increasing all the time. If you are a student of GIS and expect to soon be on the job market, take these lessons to heart and prepare yourself accordingly. That may mean undertaking additional practice if all you have ever had before is structured tutorial work. Familiarize yourself with online communities such as GIS Stack Exchange, and Esri’s new comprehensive lifelong learning site. Check to see if your region or state has its own GIS listserve; many do. Eventually you will find yourself in a situation in which your data are mismatched, encrypted or labeled with seemingly random alphanumeric codes. Metadata fields will be blank. New searches on a government data site will return 212 results with indecipherable differences, or nothing at all. You know that a GIS can do what is being asked but cannot remember how. It will be a Friday before a long weekend. Don’t panic. Take a deep breath and put those problem-solving skills in motion.
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