St. Louis: The Evolution of America’s Emerging Geospatial Center of Excellence

As St. Louis’ geospatial ecosystem looks to continued growth and further develops a talent pipeline to meet future needs, several strategies are being developed


By Andy Dearing, Spatial STL Advisors; Patricia Hagen, Ph.D., T-REX/Geosaurus; Dr. Dwayne Smith, Ph.D., Harris-Stowe University; Kenneth Olliff, Saint Louis University; Jim Alexander, St. Louis Regional Economic Development Alliance

This past November, Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), joined military, governmental, civic, and community leaders in St. Louis, Mo., to officially break ground on Next NGA West, the agency’s new, state-of-the-art facility that will be constructed just north of downtown.

While the city had a growing geospatial sector prior to the 2016 announcement by NGA that St. Louis would be the home of Next NGA West, the selection helped catalyze the development of a true geospatial ecosystem that has grown rapidly through a major push by governmental, civic, economic development, academic, and community organizations.

This geospatial ecosystem is poised for even stronger growth, resulting in no small part from NGA’s announcement at the GEOINT 2019 Symposium in San Antonio that it will declassify 20 percent of its new campus—opening up unprecedented opportunities to collaborate with academic, commercial, and other innovation partners.

NGA’s decision to build its $1.75 billion Next NGA West campus in St. Louis continued the decades-long partnership NGA had with the city. It also spurred much of the activity driving St. Louis’ emergence as the nation’s center for geospatial excellence.

One development in this process that will promote additional entrepreneurial growth and create more demand for geospatial talent was the establishment of creative public/private initiatives, such as the Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA) between NGA and Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC). This formal agreement, a first for both NGA and MTC, creates strong connections among NGA, Missouri’s thriving start-up community, and the state’s world-class higher education institutions.

Specifically, the PIA will allow small businesses and educational institutions to license NGA’s intellectual property. Under the agreement, MTC will identify start-ups and universities with an interest in licensing and further developing NGA’s patented technology, opening more doors to opportunity for entrepreneurs and researchers across the state, and driving demand for more talent.

The Challenge and Opportunity

The challenge and opportunity faced by St. Louis is how to strengthen and expand a talent pipeline to meet the growing needs of NGA and the larger geospatial ecosystem, which is expanding into relationships with other sectors of the regional economy, including transportation and logistics, agricultural technology, cybersecurity, financial technology, health care, and biotechnology.

As NGA Deputy Director Dr. Stacey Dixon said in reference to recruiting talent: “The future [of geospatial] is going to be a lot more in and out of both industry and government, and I’m excited about that, but it’s a different model. The opportunity there is great.”

This rapidly growing geospatial ecosystem requires talent, and, through multiple coordinated endeavors, St. Louis is developing the pipeline to meet the needs of the GEOINT Community today and well into the future.

Strategic Planning for the St. Louis Geospatial Ecosystem

As St. Louis’ geospatial ecosystem looks to continued growth and further develops a talent pipeline to meet future needs, several strategies are being developed. St. Louis’ institutions and backbone organizations are not just looking to increase the number of people qualified to work in geospatial technology, but are also seeking to ensure that:

  • Workforce training addresses jobs for the future, not just for the next few years.
  • Geospatial technology is connected to the needs of other thriving sectors in the region.
  • Cutting-edge research is encouraged and promoted within the region.
  • Thought leadership is established and recognized within and outside the region.
  • Opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to start up, stand out, and stay in the region are highlighted and supported.
  • Equity and inclusion are key components in the region’s talent development initiatives.

Meeting these objectives is critical to ensure a thriving ecosystem that will serve the St. Louis community and our nation into the future.

A Multilayered Approach to Develop a Talent Pipeline

The geospatial jobs of the future will not resemble the career-long paths with NGA or private companies that have existed in years past. Developing talent with traditional and nontraditional approaches is necessary to train job-ready workers to join the geospatial workforce of today and tomorrow.

To further develop its talent pipeline and make sure that workers are prepared for the changing employment landscape, St. Louis is taking a collaborative, multilayered approach that includes:

  • Work by civic organizations to attract geospatial businesses and talent to St. Louis right now.
  • Programs created at the region’s institutions of higher learning to prepare students for jobs in the geospatial sector in the near future.
  • NGA’s partnership with local schools to develop curricula for middle and high school students who will join the workforce in five to 10 years.
  • Work by St. Louis organizations to develop and engage young geospatial professionals—especially women—already working in the geospatial industry to connect them to the ecosystem and empower them to serve as ambassadors to attract new talent.

Traditional and Nontraditional Approaches

To emerge as the nation’s center for geospatial excellence, St. Louis has engaged in a collaborative effort that has brought governmental, civic, business, academic, and community institutions to the same table to speak with a unified voice and work toward the same mission. In many ways, so many different entities coming together with common purpose is emblematic of the traditional and non-traditional approaches being employed to train the workers of today and tomorrow. Three examples of this non-traditional approach can be seen in Gateway GIS, LaunchCode, and Geospatial 101, while the programming developed by the St. Louis region’s academic institutions exemplifies a more traditional approach.

GatewayGIS provides a free GIS and STEAM skill-building pipeline for low-income students via education, career development, and entrepreneurship. The purpose of GatewayGIS is to offer opportunities that are not ordinarily made available to students in underserved, urban, low-income communities, such as in the city of St. Louis and East St. Louis/Madison County, Ill. Activities in which GatewayGIS participates are career awareness, internships, entrepreneurship, GIS summer boot camps (grades 6–8), and K–5 teacher professional development. Key partners of GatewayGIS are NGA, USGIF’s St. Louis Area Working Group (SLAWG), and area colleges and universities.

LaunchCode is a national nonprofit that provides accessible pathways to tech careers and helps companies find skilled, new tech talent from all backgrounds and walks of life. It assists jobseekers to enter careers in tech through integrated training, apprenticeships, career coaching, and job placement services. LaunchCode has begun adding new capabilities to bring its coding and developer training to the region’s growing geospatial talent base. NGA partnered with LaunchCode to create a new program in GIS mapping technology to train developers for the agency. The program aims to place more than 100 developers at NGA in the next few years.

Geospatial 101 is a joint program by Saint Louis University and NGA in which experts explain to the public what geospatial is, explore the importance of geospatial in our everyday lives, and look at ways geospatial is being used to address issues important to the region like healthcare disparities and disease. By helping educate the public on the practical and important everyday uses for geospatial technology, the program looks to inspire more people to take interest in the field, and possibly consider it as a career path.

Programs at institutions of higher learning train current students for geospatial jobs in the near term, which is a critical component of strengthening St. Louis’ pipeline of ready talent. In the past decade, area institutions of higher learning have increased their focus on geospatial programming. According to the National Research Council, from 2010 to 2016, there has been a 58 percent increase in degrees and certificates awarded in geospatial fields by St. Louis-area post-secondary institutions.

Colleges and universities across the St. Louis region have wholeheartedly embraced St. Louis’ geospatial future, establishing degree and certificate programs, including:

  • Saint Louis University: Geoinformatics and Geospatial Analytics Concentration within Ph.D. for Integrated and Applied Sciences; Policy and Geospatial Analysis Concentration, Ph.D. Public and Social Policy; Geoscience, Master’s and Ph.D.; Master of Science in Geographic Information Science; GIS Certificates at Graduate and Undergraduate levels; and Computational Geospatial Science, Undergraduate Minor; United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) GEOINT Certificate in process.
  • Southern Illinois University Edwardsville: Master of Science in Geography; Undergraduate Major and Minor in Geography; experiential learning opportunities through the Laboratory for Applied Spatial Analysis.
  • University of Missouri-Columbia: Master of Arts in Geography; Geospatial Emphasis in Online Professional Master’s in Data Science & Analytics; NGA Onsite Program in Geospatial Data Science & Analytics with Certificate and Master’s pathways; Undergraduate Major in Geography; GIS Certificate; USGIF Geospatial Intelligence Certificate.
  • Missouri University of Science and Technology: Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D., Geological Engineering.
  • Washington University: Certificate in Geographic Information Systems.
  • Harris-Stowe State University: Geography curriculum, with new offerings around Geospatial and STEAM Community Outreach; Certificate in Urban Agriculture with an emphasis on Geographic Information Systems Research.

St. Louis Area Working Group (SLAWG) is the only working group of the USGIF that is geographically defined. The institutions above are all active members in its many sub-committees, which coordinate regional initiatives in research and development, workforce development, and K–12 engagement. The SLAWG is broadening its coordination with USGIF and is starting initiatives to engage more students and young professionals in regional geospatial conferences, including Geo-Resolution at Saint Louis University, USGIF’s Geospatial Gateway Forum, and the GEOINT Symposium.

Preparing for the Future: NGA Partners with Schools

NGA has developed a partnership with local schools to develop curriculum for students, inspiring them to work in the geospatial sector years from now and providing pathways from a high school degree to traditional and nontraditional programs that can support their career path development post-high school.

Beginning in the 2017–2018 academic year, and in concert with the authorities in Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Partners in Education (PIE) program, NGA has executed a multiyear, multiphase, outcome-based program that fosters greater geographic literacy, inspires interest in STEM education, and advances GIS skills, progressively equipping regional K–12 students for higher education and careers at NGA or in STEM-related businesses.

NGA employees help with PIE program initiatives that include classroom instruction, tutoring, pen pal programs, science fairs, hackathons, geocaching, career fairs, GeoDays, GeoPlunge tournaments, and giant map activities.

The PIE program demonstrates not only NGA’s commitment to developing the local talent pipeline by advancing STEM education in local schools throughout St. Louis, but also its commitment to be a good neighbor and member of the communities its current and future facilities call home.

Developing and Engaging for a More Diverse Workforce

Tapping into the talent already working in St. Louis is another critical part of strengthening and expanding the regional talent pipeline. These networks are critical to attracting new talent and demonstrating that for geospatial professionals and people looking to enter the field, St. Louis is a place where they can start up by joining a new entrepreneurial geospatial venture or starting their own, stand out with the backing of a collaborative network of like-minded professionals, and stay as a result of the supportive community and lower cost of living and running a business.

Examples of St. Louis’ efforts to engage young professionals include:

  • Geosaurus Unleashed is a happy hour and discussion series revolving around the geospatial and location intelligence community. It is sponsored by T-REX, the advanced information technology innovation center in downtown St. Louis, as an element of its new Geosaurus Geospatial Resource and Innovation Center. T-REX is home to many geospatial start-ups and companies as well as an NGA innovation site.
  • The St. Louis chapter of USGIF’s Young Professionals Group (YPG) hosts events including happy hours, panel discussions, and other informal networking opportunities to help build a sense of community among area geospatial professionals.
  • GeoSTL is an informal Meetup group that brings together developers, geographers, students, hobbyists, data scientists, and anyone else regardless of skill level to create maps and learn. They host mapathons, networking events, field collection outings, and group projects in collaboration with regional organizations.
  • The first St. Louis Regional Women in Geospatial Technology Summit was held in June 2019 at T-REX and brought together more than 120 participants from industry, academia, and NGA to hear presentations and discussions and to begin developing an ongoing network of female geospatial professionals.

These networks are a necessary component of talent pipeline development, bringing together like-minded individuals who can connect to share new ideas and employment opportunities.

GeoFutures: The Strategic Roadmap for St. Louis Geospatial Cluster

To bolster St. Louis’ rapidly growing geospatial sector and develop a strategic plan for the future, leaders from the region’s public and private sectors have come together behind a new initiative called GeoFutures. GeoFutures will be guided by an advisory committee that features a broad and diverse group of leaders from the region’s public, business, civic, and academic sectors.

GeoFutures is ensuring that this diverse group of players will collaborate as a community, working together to create a shared vision and align the efforts of many people and institutions toward the common goal of making St. Louis the nation’s geospatial center of excellence.

The GeoFutures initiative is committed not only to growth, but to equitable growth. The initiative will prioritize linking the work to opportunities that help achieve racial equity by, among other possibilities, reducing barriers to career pathways, particularly for African-American residents.

Among the leaders who will advise the GeoFutures Initiative are Letitia (“Tish”) Long and Robert Cardillo, who served as Directors of NGA from 2010–2014 and 2014–2019, respectively.


While St. Louis had a strong geospatial sector prior to being selected as the home of Next NGA West—geospatial technology is responsible for 27,053 in total employment impact and $4.9 billion in total regional economic activity—the 2016 announcement of the city’s selection helped catalyze the growth of a true geospatial ecosystem.

By taking the next step—the GeoFutures Initiative’s coordinated and strategic planning process—the region is bringing together the leaders and organizations that will help St. Louis develop the talent pipeline and economic, governmental, civic, academic, and community infrastructure necessary to rise to the challenge of sustaining St. Louis’ emergence as the nation’s center of geospatial excellence.

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