ST. LOUIS — Area universities are deepening their investment in the region’s growing geospatial industry, a commitment officials with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency praised on Tuesday as key for the U.S. to stay ahead in the burgeoning field.
St. Louis University has created new academic programs to recruit and train the next generation of geospatial and data science experts, and Harris-Stowe State University is devising plans to give students of color and other underrepresented groups access to those opportunities, leaders of both universities said on Tuesday at a geospatial conference at SLU.
“If we can actually prepare individuals who live in that community, students who are growing up in that community, for rewarding careers in geospatial intelligence, it can be a gamechanger for them,” Harris-Stowe interim President LaTonia Collins Smith said, “and change the trajectory for not only that individual but for their family and generations to come.”
The goal is to not only build a workforce to support NGA’s new $1.7 billion campus in north St. Louis, but also to signal to the outside world that the region is the nerve center for this sector. Many civic and business leaders have pinned their hopes for the area’s future on the development of the geospatial industry and the potential to get the pendulum swinging in St. Louis’ favor after decades of corporate disinvestment and slow population growth.
Work is already underway to bolster the industry in St. Louis: SLU, Harris-Stowe and the University of Missouri-St. Louis launched innovation centers to introduce their students to the industry and develop them for it. Downtown incubator T-REX dedicated a floor to geospatial technology. Regional business group Greater St. Louis Inc. devised a strategy to boost geospatial efforts and ensure minorities can take advantage of opportunities.
And several companies have already either moved to St. Louis to be close to the new NGA facility, or expanded existing operations, including California-based mapping firm Esri, the U.S. offices of Swedish company T-Kartor, and software firm Boundless, which moved from New York in 2017.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited about everything we’re doing in St. Louis,” said Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, NGA director. “We need to make sure we’re the very best at taking advantage ... so that we remain the world’s premier geospatial intelligence organization.”
Harris-Stowe’s Collins Smith and St. Louis University President Fred Pestello spoke of their institutions’ work during a panel discussion with Sharp on Tuesday at the annual Geo-Resolution conference cohosted by SLU and NGA.
“It’s something we were not engaged in at a very deep level just a few years ago,” Pestello said. “Like the region, SLU is all in on this.”
Pestello did not elaborate on the university’s new geospatial programs.
At Harris-Stowe, discussions are underway on how to expose K-12 students to the geospatial industry. It has already begun partnering with the NGA and Denver-based geospatial company Maxar Technologies on “mapathons,” where Harris-Stowe students learned how to use mapping and data technology.
Meanwhile, construction on the new NGA’s north city campus remains on track for a 2025 opening date. That’s when the agency plans to move all of its employees from its existing Second Street facility to its new campus at Jefferson and Cass avenues, said Susan Pollman, NGA program director for the new campus.
Once that move is complete, the government will look to sell the Second Street property, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. NGA’s facility in Arnold will remain open, Pollman said.