Inside Good Life Growing’s newest urban garden, co-founder James Hillis is using an iPad to pull up maps of the city. The urban agriculture organization is trying to reduce food insecurity in north St. Louis, and mapping tools help him figure out where to plot new grow spaces.
Hillis’ maps look fairly simple, but they’re powered by Geographic Information Systems data that pulls in all kinds of factors about the local community.
“I’m able to download prime urban farmland that overlaps with vacant lots throughout the city. I can look at low supermarket access as well, so I can begin to understand different variables that associate with food insecurity,” said Hillis, who is also a doctoral student at St. Louis University studying geospatial technology.
This kind of technology is not new to St. Louis. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has been developing it here for decades for defense purposes. Now, as it prepares to break ground on its $1.75 billion western campus just north of downtown, city government and business leaders are making a major push for the NGA to anchor a burgeoning industry.
“Let’s put the flag in the ground there. St. Louis is the nation’s center for geospatial excellence,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson declared during a recent event at IT startup incubator T-Rex.
That’s a message she’s reiterating this week in San Antonio on the national stage during a keynote address at the largest annual geospatial conference. In 2023 and 2025, that conference — along with its 4,000 attendees — will come to St. Louis.
City officials say it will be a major opportunity to sell businesses and talent on St. Louis.
By the numbers
The local economic impact of the geospatial industry is $4.9 billion, with nearly 11,000 people directly employed in the sector, according to figures recently calculated by the St. Louis Development Corporation.
“Geospatial has a strong root system here in St. Louis, with the NGA being the real anchor for us,” said SLDC Director Otis Williams.
“But there are a number of industry types and organizations that are already here. There are a significant number of jobs that are already here.”
The NGA has about 3,000 workers at its current campus in south St. Louis. The federal agency also creates new jobs through contract work.
Esri, which provides geospatial intelligence software and consulting to commercial agriculture companies and local governments, announced plans last month to double its workforce by the end of the year. That would bring its total workforce to 80 employees, split between its offices in St. Charles and in the Cortex district in Midtown. Another 40 jobs could be added next year.
While Esri has a dedicated team that works with the NGA, this new hiring push is for the “everything-else market,” said Matt Harman, head of the Esri Professional Services team in the Midwest.
What’s unique about the growth of the geospatial industry is that it intersects with nearly every business sector, according to AllianceSTL Senior Vice President Jim Alexander.
His newly formed economic development organization sees itself as the touchpoint for all new businesses looking to call St. Louis home. It’s also focused heavily on recruiting those that may have never considered locating in Missouri, or the Midwest for that matter.
In order to tap into the high growth potential he sees for geospatial, Alexander says his group needs to start building coalitions with other industry sectors that are increasingly using the technology.
“Think of things like precision agriculture. So we need to bring those folks to the table. Utility companies, financial services, health care — all of these individual sectors are going to be relying more and more on geospatial to grow their businesses,” Alexander said, adding that St. Louis is in a unique position to bring these kinds of industries together.
“I see the geospatial sector as holding really great promise for our region because we’re the home of NGA West — no one else can make that claim.”
Building an ecosystem
While the NGA may be the anchor, it can’t build an industry alone. The federal spy agency is beginning to open up its blackbox to startups and researchers that can help push the envelope on innovation.
By the end of the year, T-Rex will debut what it’s calling “Geosaurus” on its fourth floor. The Bayer-funded innovation space aims to bring together intelligence from the NGA, advanced IT startups and academic researchers and students studying the field, according to T-Rex Executive Director Patty Hagen.
“So you have data science, data management, agile development, open-source development, artificial intelligence, machine learning — every aspect of advanced IT is encapsulated or incorporated into geospatial industry and technologies.” Hagen said. “So it’s a great hook for a lot of the things we’re doing here.”
She sees potential not only for IT startups but businesses and city governments of all kinds.
“There are incredible usages for location intelligence that can better inform both agriculture and conservation, efforts around climate change that will be important for all of our communities and for the world as we move forward,” she said. “All of that kind of intelligence is highly needed now.”
The geospatial industry is growing at a rapid clip. Globally, it’s forecasted to become a more than $400 billion industry by 2020, according to the 2018 Geobuiz report.
That’s what makes it an investment worth the time and energy of so many public and private officials, Hagen said. It’s a long-term bet that the geospatial industry will spur not only technology advancements — but economic growth in the region, too.
“There isn’t really a great example of anything like this happening before in the nation, where there is a very advanced technology, and a federal agency lands a brand-new campus in what has been an underserved area in St Louis,” she said. “I think this is going to be studied for a long time to see what will happen to our community as this plays out over the next few years.”
Good Life Growing’s Hillis will be watching closely as the industry blossoms in St. Louis. He said the push for geospatial innovation is a good thing, but he also has reservations about what role St. Louis residents will get to play.
“Maps can be tools for persuasion, and so it’s very important that it is developed here within the area,” he said. “But at the same time, as it develops, how can it do so hand in hand with the local community that is there?”
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