What Is Geospatial? And Why Does It Matter To St. Louis?

    By Amanda Honigfort

    Geospatial was already a growing sector in St. Louis in 2015, when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced their $1.75 billion dollar, 97-acre, new West campus (commonly known as NGA West, NGA 2, or N2W) would be built in North St. Louis and fully operational in 2025. That move, however, jump-started an effort from St. Louis civic, regional, and business leaders to make St. Louis a national leader and midwestern hub for the geospatial industry.

    Similar to St. Louis’ focused effort that made the region a world leader in bio and plant sciences, “we now have an equally transformative opportunity for global excellence in geospatial and location technology over the next decade,” said Jason Hall, the Co-Founder and CEO of Arch to Park, and a member of the GeoFutures Initiative Advisory Committee.

    Andy Dearing leads the GeoFutures Initiative Advisory Committee – a working group made up of industry and regional leaders, who today, on June 23rd, released a playbook for how St. Louis will achieve this goal.

    “NGA is just the foundation.” says Dearing. “What you’re going to start seeing is the pull from other non-governmental organizations and what they are doing in the geo-sciences as well.”

    The GeoFutures group is taking lessons from that growth strategy, and applying them to geospatial – making sure St. Louis has everything needed to become the next geospatial hub. The plan has five main components:

    • Building talent and workforce development opportunities
    • Increase access to capital for geospatial sector companies
    • Accelerate the creation of new geospatial companies and support entrepreneurs 
    • Ensure community-led development and opportunities north of Downtown surrounding the new Next NGA West site
    • Brand St. Louis as the national hub and thought-leader for Geospatial 

    Once we get there it’s going to impact every aspect of life in St. Louis. To start – Geospatial is already a $439 billion global industry and it’s growing fast. That means more jobs and people, new careers, and additional infrastructure and training opportunities that intersect with our current institutions, organizations and companies – and not just in science and defense.

    From looking at where to open the next branch office or your new idea for a coffee shop, to where your clients are and how to determine which health home care workers to send where or where a sales rep’s territory should be, geospatial is everywhere. There are jobs in economics, sociology, advertising, political science, defense, site selection, oceanography, healthcare, app development, autonomous vehicles, people machine learning and AI and more that are part of the geospatial industry. There’s even applications for professional sports.

    “So if we’re the geospatial hub, all of the companies that are doing different things, or even all of the different verticals, they can be leveraging the fact that they have great resources here, in St. Louis, so they are solving their problems with a location intelligence perspective, and have that competitive edge that other companies may not have access to,” said Tara Mott, an account manager for ESRI and member of the GeoFutures Advisory Committee.

    So what exactly is geospatial?

    “Geospatial is our ability to put social, economic, environmental and ecological data on a map.” says Ness Sandoval, an Associate Professor at Saint Louis University and one of the leads of SLU’s GEOSLU initiative. “We’re collecting a lot of data that has a geospatial component to it, so we’re in this era of trying to take advantage of this data and put it on maps to better understand what is happening in cities, suburbs, across cities, across states, across countries.”

    “Everything we do involves geography in some way, we just don’t think about it.” adds Zekita Armstrong Asuquo, founder of Gateway Global American Youth and Business Alliance.

    In other words – any job that involves, or uses, data that is directly linked to specific geographical locations is part of the geospatial sector.

    With that wide of a net, the GeoFutures Initiative is focusing on a few specific verticals: 

    • National Security
    • Digital/Precision Agriculture
    • Transportation & Logistics
    • Health Care Delivery 

    These sectors were chosen because they already have a strong foothold in St. Louis.

    Geospatial & An Equity Lens

    In the new GeoFutures plan, the GeoFutures Advisory Committee acknowledges that the construction of the new NGA West headquarters in North St. Louis is a unique opportunity to “serve not only as a catalyst for the expansion of the geospatial sector in St. Louis, but also as an opportunity to create a new path for growth in the St. Louis region, a path that is transformative for those who have been left behind in the region’s economic success thus far.” 

    As seen in the plan’s five main objectives, part of the GeoFuture Initiative’s success won’t just be in growing the numbers of local jobs and companies in the sector, but also in instituting “community-lead smart cities activities in North St. Louis neighborhoods” and in fostering more businesses in that area that directly serve, and are owned by, current community members. Among the methods outlined thus far are creating an “Entrepreneurship Program for Black Tech Professionals” and supporting “North St. Louis Community-Led Neighborhood Development Efforts”

    Though specifics are still forthcoming of how those methods will be accomplished, among the measures for tracking success are:

    • The number of North St. Louis Residents participating in community wealth building projects (job training, entrepreneurship and home ownership) by race, ethnicity and gender
    • The number of North St. Louis residents participating in Smart City applications
    • New businesses launched through the community wealth building, tracking jobs generated and sales generated
    • New Home ownership by North St. Louis residents
    • North St. Louis residents in job training hired for jobs in their field of training 

    “It’s a chance to show our region and the rest of the country the right way to mobilize and support the existing community members in directing and capitalizing on a potentially multi-generational economic opportunity.” said Dara Eskridge, Executive Director of Invest STL and a member of the GeoFutures Initiative Advisory Committee

    “It’s coming, and it will be here before you know it.” says Armstrong Asuquo, the important thing, she says, is that the community is ready to fill the new jobs it brings.