SOMERS — There’s a new factory operating on the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus.
Parkside’s new GIS or Geographic Information System Factory, modeled after its App Factory, just opened this fall.
The GIS Factory, like the App Factory, gives students a chance to complete projects for real-world clients and to get paid for their work. Students in the App Factory create computer applications, while those in the GIS Factory do computer mapping.
“Following the model of the App Factory, we really wanted to provide a new sort of opportunity for our students, something that is pretty analogous to working as a consultant in the real world,” said director of the GIS Factory, John Ward. “So now what we have are clients that contract with us on projects and the students really take the lead on these projects.”
Ward described GIS as, “the idea of using computers and other technology to collect, store, manage and disseminate geographic data.”
Adrian Walton, a 28-year-old senior at Parkside, has taken on the Factory’s first project for the Root River Council in Racine.
Walton has been working since mid-summer to map the Root River Pathway, and points of interest along the way — such as fishing spots, recreational points and nearby food vendors — from Downtown Racine through Island Park.
Walton’s work will help the council with marketing materials to encourage people to engage in recreational activities on the Root River.
“This is real-world stuff, rather than just getting a grade,” Walton said. “I like being a representative of the university, rather than just being in a classroom. I’m promoting the school and the different programs we have going on.”
Interest in learning GIS has grown significantly since Ward, chair of the geography and anthropology departments, came to Parkside in 2007. At that time there were three GIS students. Now there are more than 30. Ward called GIS one of the “most emerging job markets in the country.”
This fall, in addition to starting up the GIS Factory, Parkside also opened a new and expanded GIS lab, for a combined cost of $127,000. Around $103,000 of that went to lab construction and technology and $24,000 funded technology and student workers for the GIS Factory.
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Parkside students can earn a GIS certificate or minor in it.
Ward said GIS is in such high-demand that his students get plenty of project requests, so many that they don’t have the capacity to complete them all as class projects. He said some of those projects better lend themselves to the factory model.
Students in the field
Using GPS equipment, students working on projects in the GIS Factory will collect data in the field, produce computer maps with it and do analysis, if necessary.
A new GPS receiver purchased for the GIS Factory has sub-meter accuracy, while most smartphones are accurate to 30 to 100 feet.
So far, there are only two students — Walton and senior Megan Tornoe — working for the GIS Factory, but Ward hopes to have five to 10 by the end of the year.
Tornoe just came on board at the Factory, and isn’t yet working on a project but said she wanted to get involved for “real life experience.”
“We can sit at a computer all day and push buttons, but it doesn’t have any real life impact,” she said.
Although Tornoe and Walton are both geography majors, with GIS minors, Ward said GIS draws students from many departments.
As the program grows, Ward plans to put advanced students like Walton and Tornoe in charge of projects to oversee other students.
“It not only provides that real-world experience, that client interaction, but project management experience as well,” Ward said.
Many local municipalities are in need of GIS consulting work, Ward said, and often end up contracting with out-of-state clients.
“The GIS Factory is providing a local and very affordable option,” Ward said. “We can work with clients to find a nice price point and we are certainly willing to consider pro-bono projects as well.”