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Rapid Geospatial Skill Acquisition

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This summer I have been reading “The first 20 hours – how to learn anything fast” by Josh Kaufman Kaufman references Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State university – his rule of 10,000 hours to achieve expert-level performance. This has been famously discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, but he has qualified it. If we consider a standard working year of 260 days (only weekends off, no holidays!), it would mean almost 5 years 100% focused on that target, working 8 hours a day. In reality it can take >10 years to achieve mastery – but remember, this is to become world class expert. The question this book asks is “how much is good enough?”

If you are new to a subject you don’t have to learn the hard way anymore, someone has already gone through the pain. The core GIS textbooks at university seem not to have changed significantly since I studied (other than a new edition being published). The big step change is not in the techniques, not in the underlying principals, but in the

  1. Data
  2. Software usability
  3. Software availability &
  4. User community

We can learn smarter

Learn Desktop GIS in 20 hours?

Kaufman suggests these are the 10 principals of rapid skill acquisition

  1. Choose a loveable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time
  3. Define your target performance level
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills
  5. Obtain critical tools
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice
  7. Make dedicated time for practice
  8. Create fast feedback loops
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed

If learning GIS Desktop is not a loveable project (1) then stop right now, and pick another project. Principals 2 (focus your energy), 6 (eliminate barriers to practice), 7 (make dedicated time for practice) and 9 (Practice by the clock in short bursts) are just brilliant pieces of advice for learning in general. Principal 3 (target performance skill) and Principal 4 (deconstruct skill), could be handled by setting a bench mark.

I would suggest these 4 areas are the target skills for Desktop GIS:

  1. User interface – Table of contents, buttons / toolbars
  2. Data – types, formats, using, converting, creating, editing, exporting, projecting
  3. Visualising – maps, symbols, labels, charting, presentation, layers
  4. Analysis – solving problems

Get a grip on these 4 areas and you have rapidly acquired GIS desktop skills that are good enough.

Principal 5 is effectively a decision gate; your decision is this:

Do you want to learn proprietary GIS or open source GIS? ArcGIS is used most widely in most industries, QGIS is Open Source software and accessible to anyone anywhere in the world. There are many others.

The principals are the same (remember the core texts of GIS remain largely unchanged, it’s developments in software and data that are changing). I don’t think it matters which one you choose. You will also need some GIS data. Already got some? Great. If not get the tutorial datasets that come with ArcGIS and/or QGIS are perfectly adequate.

Learning GIS is perfect for Principal 8 (create fast feedback loops), get some data and display it, change its colour, label it etc. Principal 10 is an interesting one. In Kaufman’s book he makes a good argument not to focus on perfection at the start, just get it good enough and improvements will come.

To borrow a final quote from his book “it is not rocket science”. If you are not aiming to become an ‘expert’ then yes, I think you can learn GIS Desktop in 20 hours.

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