gis developers

Best Advice For a GIS Developer

Who is a GIS Developer?

Basically, a GIS developer is someone who specializes in the development and deployment of applications dealing with location information (Spatial Data). The specific roles of a GIS developer can vary from one organization to another, one Country to another or from one project to another.
In most cases, a GIS developer also plays the role of a GIS analyst; analyzing spatial data from all breadths.

What are the roles of a GIS Developer?

In a nutshell, the following list summarizes the roles of a GIS developer;

  • Design, Develop and Deploy GIS applications. This could be desktop GIS, Web GIS, Mobile GIS or another related geoprocessing tool.
  • Maintaining GIS systems or databases
  • Writing custom or automation scripts/solutions for different problems
  • Production of reports from or using GIS software
  • Map creation and visualization dashboards development
  • Systems audit and analysis
  • System testing and bug fixes
  • Compiling projects and system requirement proposals

The list above is not exhaustive as the roles might differ as highlighted at the start of this article.

Spatial data illustration - GIS developer
Sample Aerial View Imagery

As a developer, there are so many processes or tasks that one has to plan, evaluate and execute. In your journey to becoming a good GIS developer, you will encounter quite a number of hurdles here and there. I will share some of them in this article.

Here are a few pieces of advice that I would give to a GIS developer or a GIS analyst.

1. Get familiar with the fundamentals of GIS

Before diving into GIS development, it’s important to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of GIS. This also includes its applications to solve real-world problems. Understanding concepts such as data formats, coordinate systems, map projections, and spatial analysis. These concepts will help you to develop more effective and efficient GIS solutions.

You could take on some short courses to familiarize yourself with GIS. These courses could be online or attending physical sessions.

2. Learn multiple GIS software and tools

While it’s important to have a good knowledge of one or two GIS software packages, it’s also useful to be familiar with other tools and software that are commonly used in the industry. This will give you a broader perspective on different approaches to solving GIS problems, and it will make you more versatile and employable.

In most cases, you will encounter problems that require a hybrid kind of approach when it comes to the software/tools. Most of these tools are related and are easy to learn and use.

3. Understand spatial data

As highlighted in 1 above, GIS development often requires working with large, complex datasets. Understanding the structure, format, and quality of the data you’re working with is crucial for developing accurate and reliable solutions.

Also, make sure to understand the data’s coordinate system, projection, and any other important aspect that might affect the data analysis, interpretation and visualization.

4. Learn to code

This point may sound off but it carries a lot of weight in the advice list. Many GIS projects involve some level of programming, whether it’s automating tasks, building custom tools, or developing web GIS applications.

Familiarity with one or more programming languages is essential for GIS development. The most common languages used in GIS are Python and JavaScript, but other languages such as R, Java, C++ or C# also are popular.

Learning to code will allow you to compile apps faster and more effectively in line with the project timelines. Time is key, develop strong programming skills.

On this blog, you can learn how to create web maps in R quite easily.

5. Be updated with tech trends

GIS is a rapidly evolving field, and new technologies and approaches are constantly emerging. Keeping up with new developments and trends in the field will help you to stay current and improve your skills.

Today, most of the tools taught in schools are outdated (more than 5 years old) compared to the ones used in the industry. Different software versions can cause project delays and limit system functionality over time. Understand which tools are available today in the industry and their alternatives.

There are libraries, frameworks and software being launched on a daily basis today. Be on the lookout.
You can sign up for various mailing lists, and technical groups or follow some institutions or individuals for industry updates.

GIS developers in a discussion
Members in a discussion

6. Work on real projects

To gain practical experience in GIS development, it’s important to work on projects that allow you to apply the concepts you’ve learned. This will help you to develop a deeper understanding of GIS and to build a portfolio of work that you can show to potential employers.

Participating in hackathons, volunteering for non-profits, or contributing to open-source GIS projects are good ways to build your skills and gain experience.

7. Communicate effectively

GIS development often requires collaboration with people from other disciplines, such as geographers, ecologists, or planners. Good communication skills are essential for working effectively with these groups and for explaining technical concepts to non-technical stakeholders.

Also, as a GIS developer, you will be offering your clients solutions to you their issues. You need to communicate effectively for everyone to understand.

8. Avoid the paralysis of analysis

From experience, I have encountered situations where over-analysis led to delays in project delivery. This happens to many devs, you’re not alone.

If you are to offer a solution, evaluate a number of things;

  • What solution will be best for the client?
  • Does the client understand this kind of technology?
  • What functionality does the client need?
  • Will the solution serve/cater for the future?
  • What kind of data inputs will the system be working with?
  • What is the project timeline?

These are just but a few questions to ask yourself before starting a project. Wasting time juggling technologies, APIs, tools etc will affect your project delivery timelines. Choose your stack well and timely. Also, avoid stack overkill or insufficiency in projects. This can have some drawbacks in the future of the project.

9. Always be the leader

In most cases, as a GIS developer, you will be the one leading the client on matters of the software stack, functionality and solutions. You need to make your client understand what is happening in a project. If the client guesses what is to be done, it might lead to chaos during project execution.

10. Network with fellow developers

Either you’re working in a team or individually, remotely or physically, always have a ‘friend‘ developer. At least, you will have someone to share your miseries and triumphs. Sharing with a fellow dev gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate situations and solutions. You can hold weekly calls with your fellow dev to share your issues or even have a physical meeting once in a while. It’s healthy.

11. Find a mentor

The last but powerful advice, find yourself a mentor. Mentors will help you when stuck in a situation or even when you need something. The situation could be a problem, a big idea, a proof of concept etc. Find someone who understand you and is willing to build the better version of you. A mentor could be someone in your field, a related field, family, friend, industry lead etc. Just find one that suits you.

Finally, GIS development is a challenging field that demands a combination of technical skills, problem-solving abilities, and creativity. Staying curious and motivated, focusing on solving real-world problems, and continuing to learn and develop your skills will help you to become a successful GIS developer.

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Wanjohi Kibui

A GIS user with interests in web and desktop systems development, FOSS advocate, trainer and mentor. Lives in Nairobi but finds adventure in travelling. The "Life in GIS" phrase is as a result of the many told and untold stories in the Geospatial realm.

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