St. Louis Continues to Push Toward the Geospatial Horizon

August 7, 2019

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If you haven’t noticed, the words “geospatial” and “St. Louis” have been linked together a lot these days. Any current aerial view of the city itself will reveal a primary cause: the expansive construction site of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, taking up an area of several city blocks about three miles northwest of the city’s iconic Gateway Arch.

The new Next NGA West complex is obviously a big deal, and it’s one big component of a vision to have St. Louis become a magnet for the geospatial industry as a whole. Esri has committed to significantly expanding its staff at its local office. Boundless had moved its headquarters to St. Louis in 2017 and was then acquired by Planet Federal, who expect to continue its satellite-based work activities (though life is always uncertain).  T-REX, a local technology incubator space is dedicating an entire floor to geospatial research and startups that will be managed by an NGA veteran. The city’s economic development leaders have confidence in the potential for this geospatial tech sector to be a national hub. In a recent newspaper editorial, Lyda Krewson, the mayor of St. Louis, suggested that geospatial intelligence is to St. Louis what the tech industry has been to Silicon Valley.

In what ways are the city and its institutions preparing to take advantage of this geospatial nexus? Is the existing and future workforce in St. Louis ready to take on this opportunity and this challenge? How are the local schools, universities, and businesses preparing for a geospatial enterprise differently than they would, say, if a large car factory had selected St. Louis in which to build a new plant?

Several local universities already have formal geospatial curricula in place. For example, Washington University at St. Louis offers a non-degree certificate program in GIS through its University College, and Webster University has a graduate certificate in Remote Sensing Analysis and Geospatial Information Systems. Saint Louis University has offerings ranging from an MS in Geographic Information Science to a minor in Computational Geospatial Science.

New partnerships and new research initiatives are also underway. SLU in particular is pursuing geospatial academic connections. SLU and Wash U have joined forces for COLLAB, an innovation center that will have geospatial as one of its focus areas. Robert Cardillo, the former director of NGA, is serving as a Geospatial Fellow at SLU, was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters at its spring 2019 graduation, and regularly promotes geospatial activities with audiences in the community. SLU and NGA have signed a Collaborative Research and Development Agreement.

At the same time, in a city where the local media may still refer to the NGA facility as the “spy” center, there are many opportunities for building public awareness and expanding knowledge about the broader geospatial realm. The university awarded start-up funding to SLU faculty for a new GeoSLU initiative, linking the Catholic university’s Jesuit heritage and mission to pursue truth for the service of humanity with geospatial research into social and economic inequities. SLU and NGA co-hosted a public series of Geospatial 101 talks to illuminate the power of remote sensing for global issues of deforestation, food security, and health. They also held a free and public day-long conference to promote a “21st Century Geospatial Ecosystem.” That idea – that St. Louis could represent a geospatial ecosystem – is regularly promoted by Cardillo in his new role at SLU.

Informing local and regional students about the career opportunities in the geospatial sciences is key for fueling the employment and economic growth that is anticipated. With that in mind, a group of local volunteers started a program of tutoring and short classes called GatewayGIS to support STEM learning-outcomes via geospatial technologies. A recent grant to Webster University is also aimed at having its pre-service education teachers more familiar with geospatial technologies as a gateway to STEM.

Building and cultivating networks of people within the region is key for sustaining initiatives. Another sold-out geospatial event held in June 2019 was the St. Louis Regional Women in Geospatial Technology Summit. The event brought together over 120 participants who spanned many sectors, including industry, academic, NGA, and business. They shared an afternoon of presentations and dialog, with many calls for a repeat gathering. Co-host Mollie Webb of Washington University was first inspired to organize the event as a step to develop the network of women who were beginning to meet each other at other GIS user-group-type events, including the St. Louis chapter of Women in GIS which also began in 2019, and the St. Louis GIS Users Group. When Webb began her current term as the president of the Society of Women Geographers, the timing was right. She and co-host Susan Hume, chair of the geography department of nearby Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE), designed the afternoon with modest ambitions and were delighted with the enthusiastic response from the community. As Webb describes, the anchoring power of an entity like NGA is important for a geospatial St. Louis, but the grassroots movements are important and powerful as well as the community continues to build. The high demand for interns and employees with strong geospatial and problem-solving skills will keep things flowing. 

NGA has long had a significant presence in St. Louis, as for decades almost 2,500 staff have been based at a long-used military site just south of the city. But historical buildings and futuristic technology demands are hard to reconcile, so NGA considered multiple regional sites for its move and eventually chose a location in northern St. Louis. Site suitability exercises allow decision-makers to weigh the relative pros and cons of factors, and both NGA and the city evaluated and waded through complex variables. A massive and infamous public housing project had once stood adjacent to the chosen site before its explosive demolition in the mid-1970; the city had to negotiate with a controversial developer to purchase back land it had only recently sold to him in the first place; and for other parcels, the city resorted to laws of eminent domain that have led to relocating, moving, or demolishing current local residences and other community structures. Planning and development activities are almost always fraught with conflicted choices that have often have significant social implications


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