Canadian Geomatics Community: Seems like déjà vu

May 09, 2014

In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, it seems like déjà vu all over again. Haven’t we had this conversation before? What can possibly be different in the world of geomatics from my undergrad days when in History of Geographic Thought class we pondered the weighty question, “What is geography”?Yogi_Berrajpg

I doubt any would disagree – much has changed. To some extent brought on by our own success but also the result of broad technology advances, changing societal expectations and market opportunities. The world of geomatics is changing rapidly. Over time a diverse, complex and skillful Canadian geomatics community has grown and morphed, and continues to face the prospect of ongoing change. In some respects this is disconcerting as themes, roles, and opportunities for individuals and organizations flourish and in some cases wane.

If one believes that the geomatics community in Canada provides benefit to society and is worth preserving and nurturing, then it makes sense to consider its future. I have been paying attention to the efforts of the Canadian Geographic Community Round Table (CGCRT) because I believe there is value in a strong, innovative Canadian geomatics community.

The application of geomatics knowledge, data, tools and techniques is far more pervasive than ever before. For many of us it is only in recent years, when we could point to Google Maps, that our mothers actually have the faintest idea what we did for a living. Now it seems like everyone is an expert in location based services, spatial analytics, and whatever – a bit disconcerting for those of us who have invested time and energy to develop precise skills in various aspects of geomatics. Are the scientists, engineers, technicians, database specialists, software developers and the like doomed for extinction? I would argue this is not the case.

In some respects, the popularization of geomatics, while so satisfying for those of use who have chosen a career in this field, has also worked against us as the ubiquity of some aspects of geomatics has resulted in a dilution of effort to innovate and advance the field.  Not to say that innovation and growth have ceased. On at least a weekly basis my own work exposes me to examples of innovation in technology and application of geomatics. I recently listened to a talk by a Canadian mining company GIS specialist who described how his GIS skills and spatial knowledge combined with company geophysicists to refine mineral exploration plans in northern Canada in a very innovative way. Routinely we see advances in the ability to sense and measure physical parameters from space and air and advanced positioning capabilities enable incredible efficiencies in ground surveys. So the innovation is there but sometimes it is harder to find and sometimes because of its dispersed nature, we are not able to effect compound benefits to the extent possible. While distributed systems make so much sense, when so much can be done in isolation it seems less likely that others can learn from and build on others’ innovation.

I do not see a return to the days when expertise and people are clustered in a few organizations. Were it even possible, it would be a step backwards. The geomatics community is stronger for being dispersed. However, it can be further strengthened by building new ties that allow us to interact, learn from, and collaborate with each other.

This needs to be the focus of the outcome of the CGCRT. Build a network of dispersed geomatics professionals, some with long and deep history in the field, others with focused skills, emerging professionals and established researchers, a robust industry and strong government organizations ensuring the foundational blocks are in place for continued innovation. All are valued if the Canadian geomatics community is to fully realize its potential.

The Canadian National Centres of Excellence program is celebrating its 25th anniversary. By many accounts it has been a significant driver in advancing the adoption of Canadian research into the commercial world, including various geomatics innovations. A recent article by Tony Sani noted the passing of the GEOIDE National Centre of Excellence; however, two newer centres, TECTERRA and LOOKNorth, have come into being with a strong technology commercialization focus.   Perhaps it is time to consider the value of other NCE programs to the geomatics community. Is there a role for a business-led NCE to foster collaboration between industry, the public sector and research organizations to address key research issues faced by the community? Or perhaps a program aligned with NCE’s Knowledge Mobilization objectives?

One of the challenges in moving forward is ensuring that all voices have an opportunity to be heard. My perspective is strongly oriented to industry, where the reality is there is no channel that speaks for everyone. I suspect similar situations exist among government and academic sectors of our community.

This is why CGCRT is so important. The CGCRT and the parallel Canadian Geomatics Environmental Scan and Economic Value Study are extremely relevant to our community. The latter is meant to address questions about capacity and opportunity. The former addresses the building blocks necessary to foster a strong and vibrant community as opportunities change.

I look forward to the dialog that will ensue. Hopefully it will be broad based and open minded. If so, I am confident we can set a healthy course for the next era in Canada’s geomatics future.


(Author: Dennis Nazarenko)


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