Rob and Hannah on the wonders of GIS

Robert Berry and Hannah Chiswell discuss their experience of Geographical Infomation Systems on International GIS day

What first got you interested in GIS? 

As they say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, well so is a map!

Rob: I’ve always loved maps, though when I first encountered GIS while studying for a geography degree I have to admit that I didn’t develop an affinity for it. We played around with an early command-line version of IDRISI GIS software, and did a lot of data crunching but little map-making. To my shame, I thought it was a bit dull at the time and failed to appreciate the potential of what we were doing (ironically, it’s exactly this sort of thing – a coding-based approach to analysing spatial data – that excites me now). When I left university, I was working in industry (marketing – shh, don’t tell anyone!), in a role that became more and more IT focussed, and soon found myself managing and analysing relational databases, and dipping into stuff like SQL programming. The geography bug never went away though and I always knew wanted to return to the subject and do something I was passionate about – with my new-found data/IT skills and interests, exploring a career in GIS seemed like the obvious way to go. I quit my job and signed up for a full-time GIS master’s degree. Loved it.

Hannah: I was introduced to GIS in the second year of my undergraduate degree (in 2008!). It was always something I’d heard of but didn’t know much about. The module was the toughest one I did in my degree, but ultimately the most useful. I remember sitting at the computer for hours and finally achieving the desired outcome and feeling really accomplished! I ended up using it in my undergraduate dissertation and also worked as a Research Assistant between my 2nd and final year at Uni, helping a Professor with some data on the ‘green revolution’ in Bangladesh. It was great fun seeing what GIS can do and it gave me a real taste for what life in research might be like.

Why is it exciting? 

Hannah: GIS is exciting because you actually end up with something tangible at the end of it! I also like that a map is so accessible for everyone – you don’t have to be specially trained to understand it and they can be a really useful way of communicating complex academic ideas to lay audiences. As they say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, well so is a map!

Rob: It’s a fascinating, exciting blend of IT/data skills, science, and, I would argue, art. As well as being visually stimulating, GIS demands constant problem-solving at different stages of the project cycle – even small, straightforward jobs invariably involve a moment or two of head scratching as you try and figure out the best way to approach something, or troubleshoot an issue – it keeps you on your toes. Also, the field itself is constantly evolving, with new hardware, software, techniques and data sources appearing all the time. It’s a vibrant, dynamic area of study.

Rob Berry has presented GIS data at a conference in Egypt

Have you had any formal training in the use of GIS software? 

Hannah: During my PhD I undertook the ESRI ArcGIS Desktop Associate Certificate. It was quite a challenge to do such a technical course whilst working and not using GIS a huge amount at that time, but I was keen to keep developing my skills. I had to sit an exam in a test centre with people taking their driving theory test, which was a bit weird!! Whilst I’ve been at the CCRI, I have also undertaken a two day course in Q-GIS. Whilst Q and Arc do a lot of the same stuff, they look a bit different and it was hard to get my head around it in the beginning.  

What has your experience been teaching GIS?

Rob: It’s challenging, but can be highly rewarding. It’s a vast, complex field to tackle, and those new to GIS can be a little overwhelmed at first, as there is a considerable amount of theory as well as practical skills to cover, even at a fairly basic level. When teaching GIS, you need to keep reminding yourself of this and be patient with students. As GIS is such a dynamic field, preparing and updating learning materials can be time-consuming, with changes to software, data sources, hardware and local IT infrastructure occurring frequently. Added to this, new techniques and approaches to data analysis and data visualisation are continually emerging. You need to work at it in order to keep your material current.  

How easy is it to use different GIS software packages as a beginner? 

Hannah: Starting the Q-GIS course was really difficult! I thought I was never going to get my head around it after so many years of using Arc. I’m glad I can use both though, even if it did seem a bit weird at first.

Rob: There’s no getting away from the fact that for a beginner in GIS there is a lot of ground to cover in terms of gaining an understanding of the underlying theories and concepts, while also developing the basic practical skills. I think it’s fair to say that the learning curve for some is initially rather steep, but GIS rewards at every step, and it’s great when you see something click with a student and they have an “a-ha!” moment. And I haven’t yet come across a student who hasn’t been at least a little bit chuffed with their first map.

How has GIS been useful in your work? 

Hannah: GIS has been hugely useful in my work. I’m a qualitative researcher so it’s been really nice to use it innovative ways in my data collection. It’s also really nice to be able to produce basic choropleth maps to simply show your case study area. Everyone loves a map!

Rob: Well, GIS is my work, so pretty useful! Seriously though, it’s been amazing to see how beneficial it can be across the different disciplines and areas of study in a research institute like the CCRI. I’ve been involved in applying GIS to solve problems and answer questions across a diverse range of research areas including agriculture, conservation, flood management, social science, environmental management, renewable energy planning, and climate change. It’s difficult to think of an area of research or sector of industry where GIS couldn’t be usefully applied – it’s ubiquitous now.

How does the use of GIS relate to sustainable land management? 

Hannah: Good question. A quants person might answer this differently. From my perspective – using GIS as part of qualitative methods – I think GIS can be used to communicate with stakeholders and help them envisage the impacts of land management changes (or lack of changes!).

Rob: Spatial data analysis and visualisation is at the core of environmental planning and management. Managing land effectively and sustainably, certainly at regional/national/global scales, is simply not possible without a computerised system for handling and analysing large amounts of environmental and socioeconomic geospatial data. GIS will be a critically important tool in helping us to plan for and deal with the impacts of a changing climate and the enormous environmental and social challenges it will bring. 

Rob has used GIS to map the impacts of climate change in Wales as part of the LANDMAP project

Where do you see the use of GIS going into the future? 

Hannah: I think the possibilities are huge. From a research methods perspective, I think there are significant opportunities to embed GIS into qualitative methods and I’m excited to see how that might develop. A lot of farmers I’m talking to are also getting really into GIS and things like precision farming as the technology is becoming more accessible. From my perspective, I’m really interested in seeing how those developments are changing farming and farmers’ relationship with the land.

Rob: The applications of GIS and the data, hardware, and software will likely continue to develop apace. In terms of my particular interests, the convergence of data science and GIS, which is being driven in part by the growing popularity of open source programming languages such as R and Python, is providing a platform for the development of AI and machine learning approaches in spatial data analysis. Indeed, the theme of next year’s GIS Research UK Annual Conference is “AI and Urban Analytics”. It’s likely that we’ll see more courses in geospatial data science emerging and perhaps replacing ‘traditional’ GIS teaching programmes in some higher education institutions, in response to this trend.

Working alongside social scientists at the CCRI, I see a lot of potential in the development of GIS systems capable of collecting, integrating and analysing qualitative data within a geospatial framework as part of a mixed-methods research approach – so-called ‘Qualitative GIS’. This is an emerging area of research that could help us achieve a deeper understanding of people’s experiences and perceptions of their environment and help foster co-production of knowledge of place and space. One of our CCRI postgraduate students, Caitlin Hafferty, is exploring qualitative GIS approaches for river catchment management as part of her ESRC-funded PhD.

Rob has recently published a technical report on using GIS to identify potential impacts of projected climate change in Wales in 2050 .