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Innovation in the Unexpected: SSI Founder John P. Wilson On Career Surprises and the Future of GIS

Professor John P. Wilson has built his career on finding innovation in the unexpected. In a recent conversation with geographer and educator Joseph Kerski on the Geoinspirations Podcast, he talked about two surprising moments that led to big changes in his life and ultimately the field of geospatial sciences.

The first came during what was supposed to be the “most boring class ever.”

Wilson was the first in his family to attend college and planned to become a lawyer. In a class about land administration that everyone else dreaded, he realized he was fascinated by the science and geography involved.

“For me it was like a lightbulb,” Wilson said. “Wow. Understanding processes and recurrence and space and time matters. That’s what I want to be doing.”

He finished his law degree and immediately enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Geography program.

This lesson came back in a big way, when he had the chance to reimagine the University of Southern California’s Department of Geography into the Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI) — within just a few days turnaround time.

“The last day of June in 2010, the Department of Geography no longer existed, and the first Monday in July the SSI was created,” Wilson said.

The new institute would go on to offer more than a dozen degree and certificate programs, including one of the very first online GIST degrees.

“[The SSI] is a very competitive and aspirational place,” Wilson explained.

“I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve done a good job in all our programs mixing theory, practice and technology. We’re producing students that find valuable careers thereafter.”


The Future of Geospatial Sciences: Leaders Needed

The discussion looked toward the future as Kerski and Wilson both talked about how the field could continue to stay innovative. They emphasized the need for well-rounded geospatial scientists who consider different perspectives in their work.

“We still need people who can look at a problem holistically and incorporate the human, physical, sociological aspects,” Kerski said.

Wilson laid out the types of people who will help move the field into “the big bold future”:

  • People who step up and take the lead.

    “Leadership is what we’re short on in this world — we need people with vision who can get people to follow them and do really creative things.”

  • People who are ready to think big. “The limit here is not the theory we have already nor the technology nor the practice, but rather taking what we have and imaging a big, bold future, organizing a vision around that and then systematically getting people together to execute that.”
  • People willing to go beyond their specialties and collaborate. “The academy has been super comfortable for centuries operating in silos,” Wilson said. “There’s a delicate balance between breadth and depth . . . and I’m certainly pushing [the SSI] to build and sustain breadth without compromising depth.”

Wilson said that online education, which has been a part of the SSI since 2010, will become even more prominent in the future: “That’s where the future lies, frankly.” But one thing that will remain the same, no matter what the future holds, is the student-focused culture of SSI.

“The culture that we’ve tried to build is that the students are the future,” Wilson said. “We motivate students to go out and do great things in the world. I’m super proud of their accomplishments.”


Access the Full Interview

You can listen to the full interview through the Geoinspirations Podcast Series from Directions Magazine. Additional highlights include Wilson talking about the legal case that changed his career, his argument for why we need more community-driven initiatives and his answer to the question, “What’s your favorite map or dataset?”


About USC’s Online Graduate Geospatial Intelligence Programs

USC’s GEOINT graduate programs have been designed to prepare students for the challenges and the future of the discipline. As a result, our students will gain a foundation in leveraging spatial thinking to solve geospatial intelligence problems as well as practical knowledge for assessing data quality, analyzing many different types of data and presenting intelligence reports. Learn more about our geospatial intelligence programs by clicking below.

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