Beyond Google Maps: Leveraging Locational Intelligence for Decision Making

Geographic Information Science (GIS) is a powerful tool for the collection and analysis of geospatial data to understand and solve problems in the physical and human world. Some of its uses-such as Google maps-are well known to everyday users of commonplace technologies, such as handphones

03 Mar 2020

5 mins read

Geographic Information Science (GIS) is a powerful tool for the collection and analysis of geospatial data to understand and solve problems in the physical and human world. Some of its uses—such as Google maps—are well known to everyday users of commonplace technologies, such as handphones. However, GIS also has far-reaching applications in such areas as industry, public transportation, smart cities, healthcare, retail, real estate, and environmentalism. For young people seeking a future career that merges high-tech data analysis with real-world problem solving, GIS offers seemingly unlimited potential.

The University at Buffalo (UB) undergraduate program at the Singapore Institute of Management offers a Bachelor of Science in Geographic Information Science degree program. As a nationally ranked department in the United States with a globally renowned faculty in GIS research, UB provides students in Singapore with an opportunity to join the rapidly growing geospatial sector. UB GIS is unique in its cluster of GIS specializations among faculty. Successful graduates will be poised to participate in the twenty-first century economy where technology, artificial intelligence and data will dominate.

Virtual Q & A with Dr. Kevin McKelvey, Resident Director, SIM-UB Programs

Dr. Kevin McKelvey:
1) In layman’s terms, please tell us what GIS is and give us some common examples of how it is used in our day-to-day lives.

Dr. Jessie Poon:
GIS consists of two principal approaches. The first, a process-oriented approach, sees GIS as a computer-based system that provides for the collection, storage, analysis, and display of geo-referenced data. The second approaches GIS as a decision support system so that spatially referenced data may be integrated in a problem-solving environment. Every day, citizens walk, shop, travel, and engage in spatial activities such as visiting a hospital. GIS helps map the retail area that matches with your shopping needs, the best route to get to school, work, hospital or a bank, and which forest we should protect to ensure biodiversity.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey:
2) What are some of the more sophisticated uses of GIS that are not immediately apparent in our everyday lives, for instance, in research, industry, public policy and administration, or other areas?

Dr. Gordon Tan:
We may not know this, but location-based information from our smartphones (and other Internet-enabled mobile devices with a GPS chip) is being used by marketers to deliver more customized advertisements to us. For example, users who frequent shopping malls would receive targeted retail-related advertisements on their browsers. The Singapore government relies heavily on GIS for urban planning, too. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), for instance, uses GIS to forecast future land use needs that integrates inputs from across various national ministries and agencies. This allows the URA to create a Master Land Use Plan that they can use to solicit feedback from various stakeholders, including the public, that addresses the future needs of the nation.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey:
3) How can GIS be used to understand contemporary world problems such as environmental sustainability and disease epidemics?

Dr. Jessie Poon:
In recent years, climate change and disease epidemics (Ebola, Novel Coronavirus-2019 or COVID-19) have become pressing global issues. Environmentally sustainable policies seek to return our planet to a more balanced use of resources. GIS provides a tool for designing and implementing sustainable processes at many scales from the local to the global. It allows us to visualize and analyze big data or volunteered geographic information (data collected from many points in space by citizens). It helps us track ecological and land use change by prioritizing problems and their environmental impacts. Likewise, the term “epidemics” implies that infectious diseases like COVID-19 are transmissible in space and time. GIS and remote sensing technology can help us not only to detect clusters of diseases (for example, certain cancers are geographically clustered in the USA), but to analyze the factors that contribute to their high concentration in these areas. As more public-health data becomes available, GIS may be used along with spatial models to better engage in disease surveillance to contain spread and diffusion of diseases.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey:
4) For young people looking for careers in GIS, what kinds of prospects are there now and will there be in the future?

Ms. Er Chye Har:
Geospatial information and technology is increasingly recognised as an essential tool that enables the government, businesses and citizens to make decisions, enhance productivity and improve every day lives. It will continue to grow in importance in supporting Singapore’s transformation into a digital economy and vision towards a Smart Nation. Since 2018, a Singapore Geospatial Master Plan has been put in place to develop a thriving geospatial industry with a regional GeoHub status and a vibrant enterprise ecosystem. This has presented many exciting opportunities for the growth and development of geospatial professionals in Singapore.

You would also know that the top skills that are in demand in the new world of work are mostly related to tech and data analysis, and a career in GIS is one that involves utilising these two skills sets to solve real-world problems. So, you won’t have to worry about a lack of job prospects if you are considering a career in GIS!

Dr. Gordon Tan:
Both the public and private sector are starting to realize the importance of locative data in their operations, under the broader shift towards using data analytics to enhance their competitive advantage. The public sector like URA, Singapore Land Authority (SLA), Housing and Development Board (HDB) and other statutory boards and ministries are actively looking for geospatial specialists to join their team. Likewise, graduates with GIS training are in demand in a number of fields in the private sector, as in finance and insurance, business consultancies, transportation, real estate, retail etc. With Singapore moving towards becoming a Smart Economy, the focus on data analytics will ensure that those with GIS backgrounds will see even more employment opportunities opening up.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey:
5) What kinds of skills or aptitudes are needed for pursuing a degree and a career in GIS?

Ms. Er Chye Har:
The work scope of a GIS professional can range from collecting, visualising and analysing data, developing specific geospatial applications to planning and implementing initiatives that promote the adoption of geospatial technology or data across industry sectors. As such, people who have a combination of both hard-skills (such as data analysis, project management) and soft-skills (like communication, people engagement) will find a good fit in a GIS career. It also helps if you have a genuine interest in GIS and have a highly-positive learning attitude.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey:
6) What can one expect to learn, content-wise, and what are the distinctive pedagogical characteristics of the Bachelor of Science in GIS program offered by the University of Buffalo at SIM?

Dr. Jessie Poon:
The Ministry of Education (MOE) is investing in a generation of spatial thinkers in Singapore (see website link below). University of Buffalo’s (UB) GIS is nationally ranked and its faculty are globally renowned. The department is one of three national centers on Geographic Information Science. It has also recently been designated a geospatial intelligence center by the federal government. Its graduates are highly sought after by ESRI, the country’s largest GIS software supplier.

There is a lacuna of geography departments at local universities that offer a GIS degree. The GIS minor that is offered locally requires three principle GIS courses and this is supplemented by courses in Engineering, Statistics and Computer Science. UB Geography’s GIS is highly proficient in three areas: GIS, remote sensing, and spatial statistics and econometrics. Some of the algorithms currently used in statistical software were developed by the faculty. The degree requires a minimum of 7 core GIS courses that are taught by the geography faculty including statistics. This is important because general statistics taught in another discipline do not cover methods of cluster detection or spatial autocorrelation which can be problematic when areal data is used. In addition, remote sensing techniques can provide a more accurate understanding of spatial data over a large area. For example, tracking deforestation is better estimated from earth orbiting satellite images while flying drones to detect dilapidated homes will help city governments tackle the extent of slums.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey:
7) What are the scholarship opportunities for students who wish to pursue a degree in GIS? What are the criteria for the applicants?

Ms. Er. Chye Har:
As the Centre of Excellence for geospatial capabilities in the public sector, SLA has collaborated with nine other statutory boards to offer the Singapore GeoSpatial Scholarship for undergraduate GIS or related studies at local or overseas universities. We welcome students who have a keen interest to pursue a geospatial career to apply for the scholarship. Apart from intellectual capabilities, we are looking for candidates who can demonstrate how they can use their passion in GIS to improve the lives of people in our communities. You may refer to the attached EDM or visit our SLA website at to find out more about the scholarship awards offered by SLA.

Dr. Jessie Poon
Professor, Department of Geography,
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Professor Jessie Poon at the University at Buffalo specializes in international trade, investment and Asian firms. She has published over 80 scientific journal articles including a 2017 book on International Trade. She is editor of the reputable journal Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, and is an editorial member of five other well-ranked international journals. She is Vice-Chair of the International Regional Studies Association and serves on various committees at the American Association of Geographers. One publication from China placed her as one of the top 25 geographers worldwide.

Reputable Geographers in the World (Source: World Regional Studies, 2015)

Dr. Gordon Tan
Faculty Fellow, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)
PhD. in Economic Geography, University at Buffalo, SUNY.

Gordon Tan is currently Faculty Fellow at SUTD. As a financial geographer, his work focuses on examining the role of technological changes in shaping the nature of urban financial centres and financial work, and how people understand and interact with new, emerging financial technologies like bitcoin. He is also interested in studying the networked flows of human capital among financial centres and their effect on urban and regional development. As part of his ongoing research agenda, he interrogates the intersections between finance, technology and society. Gordon is currently working on a co-authored book that explores misinformation in the online era from a geographical perspective.

Er Chye Har
Director, Human Resource
Singapore Land Authority

As Head of Human Resource in the Singapore Land Authority, Chye Har is responsible for developing and implementing people strategies to enable organizational growth.

She has over 20 years of experience in the human resource and organisation development field. Prior to joining SLA in 2010, she had worked in public and private sector organisations including PSA Corporation, DBS Bank and Department of Statistics/Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey
Resident Director,
SIM-University at Buffalo Programs

Dr. Kevin McKelvey is the Resident Director of the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York undergraduate degree programs at the Singapore Institute of Management. In this position he oversees the delivery and ensures the academic quality of the UB degree programs in Singapore. He is also in charge of the recruiting, selection, mentoring, and evaluation of local faculty, and the orientation of visiting faculty to the Singapore program and its cross-cultural teaching environment.

He previously worked as a teacher trainer for the US Department of State in Russia and as an ESL instructor in the US. He has master’s degrees in Foreign Language Education from University at Buffalo and in Slavic Studies from Cornell University, and an Ed.D. in International Higher Education from Northeastern University.

Posted online, 02 Mar 2020