Geography · Economics · Visualization

What If The Fix For the Geospatial Workforce “Crisis” Is…Better Pay?

I saw some of the most talented Spatial Minds of my generation…take non-spatial jobs for better money.

Recently LinkedIn brought me tidings that two people in my network took new positions with no obvious link to the Geospatial industry. In their spatial endeavors, these folks were technically adept, innovative, and happy to volunteer to speak about their work at industry get-togethers.

And now they’re gone.

And I don’t blame them.

A Supply Problem?

This came to mind as I watched a program titled  The Geospatial Workforce Crisis: A Diversity of Pathways Forward put on last month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Industry veterans from academia, government agencies, and the private sector came together for four hours of presentations and panel discussions addressing the current and projected shortage of workers in the Geospatial industry.

In the main the content was thoughtful and interesting, but one thing bothered me:  over the four hours there was little to no conversation about compensation.

Look, 21st century Late Market Capitalism has its flaws, but the basic dynamics of Supply and Demand haven’t been suspended: if there is a shortage of something you want and need, well, there’s a price for everything.

The Consequences of the GIS Silo

What’s the GIS Silo? It’s the decades-long insistence that GIS was so magically distinct that it was to exist apart from mainstream IT.

The GIS Silo was great for vendors: define a niche market and insist your customers’ niche technical requirements couldn’t possibly be understood, let alone subsumed, by a normal IT department.

The GIS Silo was okay-ish for the training/education industry. Following the Vendor lead, they could teach some theory and some software and there were usually some OK jobs waiting for industrious students.

The GIS Silo is no longer working for its Practitioners.

Every day you fiddle with interfaces that promise to GUI the complexity away, you’re costing yourself money.

The larger IT industry is rewarding SQL skills.
The larger IT industry is rewarding Programming skills.
The larger IT industry is rewarding Data Pipeline management.
The larger IT industry is rewarding Data Visualization chops.

Inside the GIS Silo the most lucrative credential is now…a Security Clearance.

Sure, few of us got into this industry for the money, but also few of us can avoid the 21st century middle-class conundrum of School Loans/Mortgage/Kids – Pick Two and ignore the discrepancies in compensation.

It’s All About Distributions

The compensation issue simply isn’t about a single median figure, it’s about the distribution.  Let’s compare GIS Analyst vs Business Analyst courtesy of Zip Recruiter:

Even discounting the vagaries of job titles, the skew in the distribution of GIS Analyst salaries is notable because it implies a stagnant middle grinding away while effectively blocking the ability of new entrants to rapidly ascend the wage scale as you’d find in more “normal” distributions (check out the distribution of Data Scientist to see what even greener grass looks like).

If your most skilled practitioners are leaving and the stagnant middle can’t advance technically, then we see the all-too-common GIS Manager solution:  a job posting for entry-level positions with a blizzard of acronyms that reads like a Rosetta Stone of Vendor-Foisted Technical Debt.  I’m no expert on the hopes and dreams of Gen Z, but maintaining your early 2000s  SOAP web service for fry-cook wages is not a future that galvanizes the imagination.

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For all of the hand-wringing about labor prospects in the “AI Future” I’m confident that anyone working with Data will be fine:  data quality issues will be huge and presenting clear visuals of increasingly complex relationships in data will only increase in demand.  Markets for Geospatial know-how will grow,  from a dynamic Remote Sensing industry to anything touching climate issues.  For practitioners there’s never been more opportunities to independently enhance their skill sets.  And maybe, just maybe, the real “crisis” in the industry is the insistence on holding on to a Status Quo from the Past that is no longer serviceable for its Practitioners.


— Brian Timoney 

Bracing For The Satellite Pixel Glut of 2023

It’s a question as old as capitalism itself: does Supply create its own Demand?

With Serious Money flooding the Earth Observation sector–Billionaire money, Former Treasury Secretary/ Wall Street money, etc.–the industry is SPAC’d up and hurling satellites and sensors (optical, radar, hyperspectral, you name it) into orbit at a dizzying rate.

But what if the engineering virtuosity required to successfully launch a satellite and successfully collect sensor data is not the most difficult problem to be solved? What if finding product-market fit for the resolution/sensor-type/temporal-cadence of your pixels is the greater challenge? What if with every successful launch and funding round it’s becoming a little more obvious that Earth Observation’s challenge isn’t Supply, it’s Demand?

Because while the Customer of First Resort–Big Government (specifically the defense and intel sectors)–is happy to do its part and even nurture new entrants by spreading its bets, it can’t support everyone’s heady revenue projections based on the premium incumbent pricing of the past. Recent entrants speak optimistically about segments such as Agriculture, Insurance, et cetera and imply an impressively diversified revenue base. To those of us who have watched the big incumbents (Maxar and Airbus) try and grow a variety of verticals over the past two decades with modest results, projections of ravenous commercial growth over, say, the next five years seem a little too frothy.

None of which would be particularly interesting if it wasn’t for the proclivity of Hot Money to head for the exits at the merest whiff of less-than-outsized returns. Everyone says the right things about Space being “a long term play” yet the sell-offs in the wake of a quarterly earnings announcement tell a familiar short-term story.

That the successful launching of faster/better/cheaper earth observation satellites is now regarded as commonplace is a massive engineering achievement justly celebrated. But that very success has spawned a whole different set of formidable challenges: somehow jump-starting real, tangible commercial demand that will satisfy the aggressive expectations of capital markets. Maybe there’s a megatrend that will arrive just in time–climate action, catch-all ESG initiatives, or who knows, the hasty construction of Metaverses(!) What’s for certain though is that Supply is not waiting on Demand.

And a reckoning is coming sooner, not later.


— Brian Timoney 



The Shadow of Time photo courtesy of  Carlos Borroni‘s Flickr account

The Travelling Salesman Problem Is Not a Routing Problem, It’s A Monetization Problem

Creative destruction is awesome until it comes for your livelihood.


Having made a few dollars over the years building custom routing applications, I had two distinct reactions when testing out the Straightaway app recently after reading this Mapbox post.

“this is way cool and efficient” 😀

“time to look for another way to make money solving geospatial problems” 🙁

Of course routing has been firmly on the path of commodification since at least the Mapquest days in the late 1990s.  When Google Maps came along with dynamic re-routing in the browser I was so delighted and befuddled I had to ask Brian Flood to explain to me (slowly) how this magic was happening.


The app’s pitch  is to optimize multi-stop delivery routes—the freemium version lets you route up to 25 stops, with some near real-time traffic awareness, and get an ordered set of stops with precise time estimates.  But the real user-experience win is the OCR address detection of your list of stops using your phone camera!  I printed out a list of 18 addresses spread around Denver and in a minute I had my detailed route.


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What’s been the most valuable innovation in routing?

Hands down: turn-by-turn voice directions.

Without turn-by-turn voice directions, there is no multi-billion dollar gig economy of ridesharing and delivery because you would never have a critical mass of drivers if traditional map-reading skills were required (let alone their  brute-force memorization a la “the Knowledge”).  As geography enthusiasts, we wish that weren’t the case, but the World isn’t what it Ought to be (in so many ways).

Perhaps that’s the real lesson we should take away from a cool app that disrupts our Income Streams:  spend more time thinking about UI/UX form factors that empower a broader audience rather than simply focusing on the geospatial wizardry that impresses our small in-group.


— Brian Timoney