A Map of the World: GIS Certificate Offers Cutting-Edge Skills

January 01, 2014

From environmental scientists to bridge builders, from disease trackers to fire departments, more and more professionals rely on geographic information systems (GIS). The mapping technology has become a critical tool in addressing crises from inner-city poverty to global warming. Agriculturists use it to study crop yields. Retailers lean on it to locate target customers.

And now, thanks to the new Geography Graduate Certificate Program, Columbian College students can jump directly into the burgeoning scientific specialty – and take advantage of the growing GIS job market. The Certificate in Geographical Information Systems equips students with a solid grounding in geospatial theory and techniques as well as its practical applications. By the end of the course, students are ready to transform models and data into roadmaps for addressing real-world problems.

“Our goal is for students to leave this program with the know-how to immediately put their GIS talents to work,” said Professor Marie Price, chair of the Department of Geography. “Government agencies, non-profits, and the private sector are looking for people with strong GIS-proficiency. After completing this certificate, our students will be well-equipped to fill those jobs.”

Over the last decade, GIS has changed the way geographic data, relationships and patterns are displayed and analyzed. By itself, geographic information simply marks the location of objects and features, such as physical features like rivers or roads, or human features like electoral territories or population clusters. It’s valuable information, but limited in what it can tell us.

GIS essentially ties location to information. It lets users combine data – perhaps forest erosion and human migration patterns – to paint a vivid portrait of complex scenarios in map format. By integrating information from diverse sources, GIS graphically highlights trends in a host of fields. A GIS display, for example, might help environmental researchers diagram the complex relationship between natural resources and human population to cut down on pollution sources. Or, by overlaying maps and data points, fire departments can plan the quickest routes to emergency sites. They can even cross-index by rush-hour traffic patterns or construction delays.

“We’re thrilled that GW can give students this great opportunity,” said Nuala Cowan, director of the GIS certificate program. “The geospatial software and analysis skills taught in our program are increasingly important in the workplace. These skills, coupled with hands-on experience, will set our students apart in the job market."

Already, Columbian College geography students are using their GIS skills for humanitarian efforts. In November, more than 90 students joined with teams from USAID and the World Bank to map Katmandu, Nepal, as part of draft emergency preparedness plans. During an on-campus “mapping party,” the students worked with USAID experts to geospatially document more than 15,000 buildings in Kathmandu, a city that is vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Another group of students worked with the American Red Cross on a crisis-mapping project for the Philippines after Hurricane Haiyan. These “digital volunteers” helped with everything from charting the most efficient routes for responders to assessing infrastructure damage. And Cowan spent her holiday break in the Philippines, assisting with post-hurricane relief and damage-mapping.

The GIS Certificate encompasses a selection of core and elective courses that provide knowledge and skills needed by professional GIS users. The program guides students through all aspects of GIS theory and practice, from the science of cartography to analyzing geographical statistics to database design and geospatial modeling.

"This is an exciting time for geospatial science and especially for GIS users working with open source platforms,” Cowan said. “Whether you’re using these skills to track public health issues in DC neighborhoods or to manage international emergency relief efforts, the GIS Certificate will be a vital resource for launching or advancing your career.”