13 Short Online Course Ideas to Boost Your GIS Career

Geographic Information Systems is a discipline which goes right to the heart of conservation and helps us to answer fundamental questions right across the spectrum of topics in conservation. ‘Why does this species occur here but not there?’, ‘Where should we prioritise our conservation actions?’, ‘How connected are these two wildlife populations?’, ‘What is the rate of deforestation in this region?’. Thomas Starnes is a GIS Analyst with the RSPB; the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe, and it’s his job to use GIS to answer these kinds of questions every day. “If you have an affinity for maps, data and problem solving, then GIS is a great way to get yourself into a career in conservation – it’s a very employable skill,” says Thom. Here he shares his personal list of online GIS training opportunities, which he hopes will help anyone looking to get a foot in the door with conservation GIS.

I was inspired to write this article when I read James Walker’s Ten Short Course Ideas to Boost Your Career (UK) on Conservation Careers. Over a number of years working in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), I have been developing a list of online courses which are all relevant to a career in conservation, and slowly but surely I’ve been progressing through them. I hope that other people will find this list useful and informative. It’s far from comprehensive, but rather provides a general overview of what’s on offer. I’d welcome suggestions of other courses which could be added to the list (Part 2).

Fundamentals of GIS for Conservation

Provided by Conservation Training, the six-part course Fundamentals of GIS for Conservation  introduces the fundamental concepts of GIS, from understanding coordinate systems to managing databases and attributes. An optional pre-course test helps to identify areas that you need to focus on. A great place to start!

A Gentle Introduction to GIS

You’ve opened the QGIS Training Manual and didn’t get past page 2. You don’t know the difference between a vector and a raster. You are 12 years old and working on a homework assignment. Brought to you by the South African Department of Land Affairs, A Gentle Introduction to GIS could be just the ticket for you! Get your coordinates straight with this gentle intro!

QGIS Training Manual

When you’re trying to learn something new, there’s nothing wrong with sitting down and reading the manual. Perhaps you’ve got the GIS basics, but now you want to get to grips with the finer details of QGIS like how to set the snapping tolerance when digitising your vector data or how to manage your feature attributes. The QGIS Training Manual can actually be read as a tutorial, with sample data and exercises explaining how to get your head around adding plugins to printing your maps.

Tom.bio QGIS Biological Recording Plugin

Have you got the hang of QGIS yet? Found the plugins directory? Plugins add additional functionality to your GIS and are developed by the user community, so anything is possible! Created by the Field Studies Council’s own GIS guru Rich Burkmar, the Tom.bio QGIS Biological Recording Plugin offers some great functionality for anyone working in the UK on national grid squares and species records. Best of all, there’s a whole YouTube channel with tutorial playlists explaining how to use the tools! Check it out.

Esri Training Catalog

Esri is the company behind the world’s leading industry standard ArcGIS platform. While there has been a move by some organisations towards open-source QGIS in recent years, the vast majority of GIS jobs still require familiarity with ArcGIS. Part of the Esri Virtual Campus, the Esri Training Catalog boasts over 500 seminars, web courses and instructor-led training opportunities. Some of these are free, and some are paid for – you can filter them according to your preferences. If your employer or institution (e.g. your university) has an maintenance licence with Esri, then you will have access to all of this content bar the instructor-led training through your institution’s login. Make the most of it!

Esri MOOCs

In addition to Esri’s extensive Training Catalog, there are several specialised training pathways available; these are the Esri MOOC series. Offering more specialised training pathways, the MOOCs take place over several weeks, and are supported by course tutors and the community of participants. Courses encompass such spatial delights as Geo-Apps, Earth Imagery and Spatial Analysis. What’s more, you can get free access to Esri’s world class software for the duration of the course. Well, what are you waiting for?

Online IUCN Red List Training Course

Every serious conservationist has heard of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but you may not have heard of the Online IUCN Red List Training Course. If you’re looking for a job assessing the red list status of the world’s wildlife with Birdlife International or the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, then a completion certificate from this course could put you well ahead of the competition. The course covers everything you need to know from IUCN mapping standards to how to assess a species’ extinction risk using simple GIS tools.

How to do Binary and Weighted habitat suitability analysis

Interested in taking your GIS skills to the next level? Spatial modelling experience will help to put you head and shoulders above the rest. Available on Udemy – one of the leading online training course providers, How to do Binary and Weighted habitat suitability analysis by GIS Specialist Neba Funwi-gabga introduces the concepts of binary and weighted habitat suitability analysis for GIS users. Udemy often offer substantial discounts on these courses, so it’s well worth taking a look now just in case!

Get started with Species Distribution Modelling in Maxent
If you’ve read anything about species distribution modelling, then the chances are you’ve heard of Maxent. Developed by academics at Princeton University, Maxent has become one of the most widespread algorithms for modelling species distributions. Maxent has always been free, but it has recently become open source, which has got a lot of researchers very excited because this means that they can now open it up, see how it works and tinker with the insides. See A Brief Tutorial on Maxent, written by the authors (sample data and resources are available from the Maxent web page, now hosted by the American Museum of Natural History), or the Udemy course Get started with Species Distribution Modelling in Maxent. N.B. It’s worth learning a bit about free software (‘freeware’), proprietary software and open source software.

Google Earth Engine API Tutorials

We’ve probably all heard of Google Earth – the free virtual globe (it is also essentially a GIS in it’s own right). But did you know about Google Earth Engine? Harness the combined power of huge catalogues of earth imagery and Google’s processing power to perform cutting edge spatial analysis anywhere in the world.The tutorials don’t assume any programming knowledge, but a willingness to learn JavaScript (Google Earth Engine can also be run with Python). The example used in the tutorials is the Hansen Global Forest Change dataset, so it’s very relevant to us conservationists. Check out the Google Earth Engine API Tutorials and become a spatial analysis wizard!

Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python)

This list wouldn’t be complete without giving a nod towards Python. Programming your spatial analysis rather than using a GUI (graphical user interface) can save time, and can make your analysis more robust and repeatable. Python is used by both ArcGIS and QGIS, so it’s a skill well worth developing. Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python) is provided by another of the MOOC giants – Coursera (check out their other courses, too) – and delivered by Charles Severance at the University of Michigan. I found Chuck to be very engaging and personable, and I really got on with this course, so I can recommend it to anyone looking to improve their programming.

Spatial data in R: Using R as a GIS

The Conservation Scientists that I work with often only use a specialised GIS software for the finer cartographic elements of map design, choosing instead to perform most of their spatial analysis in R which can be more powerful and efficient. Spatial data in R: Using R as a GIS is brought to you by Francisco Rodriguez-Sanchez and covers all the basics of spatial data in R, including importing, plotting and analysing spatial data. For more of a general introduction to R, check out Coursera’s R Programming by Roger Peng at John Hopkins University, or the R package swirl – Learn R, in R – a beautiful concept!

GIS for Biologists

Hot off the press! Due to popular demand, GIS In Ecology has now launched its very first online course.This new online training resource provides a basic, practical introduction to GIS with a focus on biological research and is aimed at the complete beginner who needs a hand working out where to get started. Alos check out GIS guru Colin McLeod’s GIS in Ecology web page and in particular look at the training courses and sign up to the Google Group for regular updates and discussions.

Whatever you do, be patient and you’ll achieve brilliant results! As with other technical skills, online forums and your favourite search engine will have most of the answers. Particularly look at GIS StackExchange if you get stuck, and also Esri’s GeoNet if you’re using ArcGIS.
Happy mapping!

Featured image credit – shankar Dayal(9716701677) / Wikipeadia

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