A roadmap for life
May 12, 2006 4:20 AM   Subscribe

At the grand old age of 37, I've suddenly been hit by the realization that I'm in the wrong career and it's corroding by soul. I want to work in something to do with the surveying and production of maps (I love maps). Does anyone work in this field and have advice on what qualifications I'll need and be able to tell me what sort of stuff they do?
posted by DZ-015 to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably a fairly minor field. There aren't that many maps that need to be made, if you know what I mean. However, GIS really is a growing field. See if you can get yourself in some basic GIS training courses. ESRI run online courses, which are great, but they require access to the full ArcGIS software, which will cost a hell of a lot. Universities, in my experiences, tend to run short-courses on GIS - two weeks in the break between semesters (I'm talking from an Australian perspective here - I assume the same applies in the US) which will give you an introduction to the methods behind managing spatial data. That would probably be a good starting point.
posted by Jimbob at 4:35 AM on May 12, 2006

By the way, I'm kind of in the same situation. I've been an ecologist up until now but I've just landed a job that involves a lot of mapping and work with spatial data. And I love it. What sort of work have you done in the past? Because a working knowledge of GIS, plus decent managerial / data analysis experience might get you a long way.
posted by Jimbob at 4:37 AM on May 12, 2006

Besides GIS data work, also consider that the OP might be happy with land surveying work. You know, those guys out by the side of the road with poles, tripods, levels, etc.
posted by intermod at 5:04 AM on May 12, 2006

Are you aware of OpenStreetMap.org? They are trying to devise copyright free maps of both the UK and elsewhere, which if not a career allows you to feed your interest. There was an article about them recently in the Guardian.

Career-wise, checking the Ordnance Survey site might give you some idea of what they look for in potential employees (though there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of jobs related directly to maps there at the moment).

There are a number of places around the UK (and elsewhere no doubt) you could learn surveying, and positions in the sector can be pretty well paid, though how close such jobs are yo exactly what you want may be another matter. You could well be looking at full three year degree, though many institutions also offer an MSc.
posted by biffa at 5:46 AM on May 12, 2006

second the gis work. just got a gig doing just that for the insurance industry. the job rocks ... but then I like maps.
posted by lester at 7:46 AM on May 12, 2006

I used to work for Minnesota's Department of Transportation's Surveys department (I wrote software for them). There were a few who worked in the department who did nothing but make maps - they tended to have liberal arts degrees, and not necessarily in anything obviously related (one guy had a Geography degree, and at least one had no college degree and had started on a sruveying crew). They were responsible for taking the raw data collected by the survey crews and running custom software for refining and plotting that data, and then cleaning up the resulting CAD files for readabilty. There were some who did stereoscopic mapping (where you take two pictures from slightly different positions and overlay them to make a 3D picture, and then determine positions using that 3D image), but they were in a different office and I never knew much about it. Apparently, it was a great way to get a pounding headache.

The guys (it was pretty much all guys) with Civil Eng. degrees were managers, for the most part. They guys who worked on survey crews and collected the data typically didn't have college degrees. I'm not sure what that job would be like now - at the time, the gov't was still fuzzing the GPS signal so you couldn't use it for anything more accurate than soil sample surveys. I wonder if survey crews can just walk around and push a button now (although I still see people using total stations,so probably not).

I would check with your local DOT - they have a lot of mapping needs. I would guess that the DNR is another good place to check.

I understand wanting to get into that field - looking back, it was probably the most satisfying work I've ever done.
posted by bonecrusher at 8:00 AM on May 12, 2006

Navteq has a UK office but right now it looks like the're only looking for Marketing people. I used to work for Rand McNally and I know they required a GIS degree of some sort. A sample of what they want in a GIS technician:

Requires an individual who is detail-oriented, performs work accurately and efficiently, and is able to follow standardized workflows and procedures. Must have effective organization and communication skills and the demonstrated ability to meet goals and achieve results.
Must have working knowledge of cartography and GIS, good computer skills (MS Windows, MS Office including Excel and/or Access, Internet), and experience with GIS software.

Education: BA/BS in Geography or related field required, with coursework in Cartography and/or GIS, or equivalent work experience.
Depending on what track you want to get in on, how much of an education you need can vary. I was hired off the street basically and worked my way up the ladder by learing all I could w/o having much of a mapping backround.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:04 AM on May 12, 2006

Oh - looking at your profile, I see you're not in the US. "DOT" is "Department of Transportation" and DNR is "Department of Natural Resources". No idea if there are Scottish equivalents.
posted by bonecrusher at 8:09 AM on May 12, 2006

I would disagree with the claim that there aren't that many maps that need to be made. GIS is a growing field. You have to really like computer work, though. Quickly solidifying, used to be that you could get hired by being computer-savvy, but probably no longer.

You might look into city planning, landscape architecture, or regional environmental planning. Step one: map current conditions. Step two: draw a better map.

You might also look into landscape ecology or conservation biology. I have a friend who spent a summer tracking deer in the backcountry and GPS'ing their location to someone making maps elsewhere. National or regional parks systems sometimes need people to GPS their trail alignments while they're converting their system from paper-based to computer-based. (And usually their GIS people do this, though, at least in the regional parks district I worked for.) This may be fairly US-specific, sorry. But being the trail person might be a way to get a foot in the GIS door.

Fun maps: have you seen this book? How about this?
posted by salvia at 11:01 AM on May 12, 2006

If you really want to make maps, ESRI's ArcGIS is the way to go.

One way to get experience once you've taken a class or two and decide you really want to do this is to volunteer or work for a medium-sized local conservation organization or land trust. They might have ArcGIS because they can get it at the non-profit rate, and they need smart, interested people willing to create maps, charts, diagrams for not much money (from what I know, land trusts etc. have a hard time competing for GIS talent with for-profit organizations because they can't pay as much). Plus, IMO it's more fun to map natural resources than sewer outflows -- and, if you manage to get to go out in the field to collect GPS data, much more fun!
posted by nnk at 1:10 PM on May 12, 2006

one more thing -- about the satisfaction factor -- A good, well-designed map does an amazing job of conveying a message. People gravitate to maps and if they're done right, the viewer instantly gets what the map says and might even hand over a chunk of change to preserve that wetland or make sure that piece of forestland or farmland isn't chopped up into another subdivision.
posted by nnk at 1:13 PM on May 12, 2006

Wow -- O'Reilly just had a "Where 2.0" Conference here in San Jose, California, USA. You might look it up, look the companies who were there up -- and see what they are doing. Don't know if any of them are overseas -- but maybe that's even better -- come over here, get a little education, go back and be the expert!

In the computer area called "microformats" (of which there are just a few) -- Bill Gates is quoted as saying that we need a microformat for destinations (e.g., mapping, like mapquest, etc.)

And there are sooooo many kinds of maps!

Check it out!

Of course, for a hobby you could always take up orienteering! :)
posted by NextDay-Copy at 12:22 AM on June 17, 2006

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