Interview: Prashant Shukle, Director General, CCMEO

Jul 13, 2015

I recently had the chance to interview Prashant Shukle, Director General at the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation (CCMEO) at NRCan, about the results of the Canadian Geomatics Environmental Scan and Value Study and what it means for the sector. This interview informed an article about the relationship between the geomatics sector identity and growth, and the full transcript is available below.

Caitlin Blundell, GeoAlliance Communications Lead

 

CB: The Canadian Geomatics Environmental Scan and Value Study uses 2013 data. While the information it contains is very useful for the sector, lots of people are wondering whether NRCan will repeat the study to gauge the rate of change. Could you elaborate on your vision for the frequency and scope of future studies?

PS: From my perspective, having these kinds of studies done on a regular basis is important. It tracks the progress and the impact of the industry and it informs decision-making at the federal government with respect to responsible roles and how we work with the private sector and academe. It’s certainly our view over the medium term to have another study done in another 5-7 years.

But let me be really clear - I think there’s a lot of work to be done before we can get to the next study. This study does establish some interesting findings. I think various geomatics players in the country need to come together to unbundle and un-package them and really make sense of what this study is telling us.

 

In both the Value Study and the Canadian Geomatics Community Round Table’s Pan-Canadian Geomatics Strategy, a distinction is made between the core geomatics sector and the wider geospatial community of users. In the study, the geomatics sector is defined as "organizations from industry, government and academia involved in geospatial information capture, processing, analysis, presentation, or services, and in the production of associated technologies,” while the broader community includes many users of geographic information in adjacent industries.

How clear is the boundary between these groups? The study is clear that as time goes on it’s becoming much harder to draw this boundary. Could you describe any changes you have observed in their relationship? Why continue to make the distinction?

What the model gives us is a way of looking at the impact of geomatics and geospatial on the economy. We have a traditional core of companies/associations that identify themselves as part of the geomatics industry. What the study and the productivity impacts tell us is that there are a lot of people out there that are using geospatial in their business but they don’t identify themselves as geospatial/geomatics players - they’re aligned to other industries.

So the question becomes, how, as a geospatial community, do we maximize the application and the use of geospatial for productivity and innovation in the economy? It tells us a little bit based on feedback from various firms that we have a bit of an identity crisis. The numbers tell us that not everyone involved in geospatial identifies with the geomatics sector. We have an opportunity to try to build the community, and also start looking at how the community uses geospatial.

We can start asking some fundamental questions - are we using geospatial tools, data, technology in the most effective way possible? Are there other things we can do in vertical industries that can accelerate the innovation capability, the productivity capability and the competitiveness position of firms operating in Canada by deploying geospatial tools and technologies? There’s also the other components of the study that look at things like the non-economic benefits which also give a strong indication that various firms/companies who don’t identify themselves as geomatics firms could actually derive benefit from using geo in their business - whether it’s environmental benefits, whether it’s fuel saved, whether it’s better deployment of resources for health care. The study points out a whole series of those types of activities in the case studies.

 

So the purpose of continuing with this distinction is not protectionism of the existing geomatics sector - battening down the hatches and drawing a line between us and them - but more, broadening the umbrella and bringing more people in, and allowing those benefits to percolate outwards from the sector into new areas? Do I have that right?

That’s certainly the way we see it. There’s a tremendous opportunity. Canadians appear to be pretty savvy about using geospatial tools/technologies. It’s becoming widespread. Our firms and our academic institutions are some of the best in the world. I know that other countries are looking at our study and saying “we need to do what you just did” to better understand what is happening.

 

The study notes that the core sector has remained the same size over the past several years while the geospatial community has grown significantly. Does this study give us an indication why this is happening and/or how the core sector can capitalize on the growth of geospatial information use? Does the study give us any indication of how that might happen? Is the goal to grow the traditional sector, or are we trying to grow the community and consider that a net benefit to the sector proper?

The study provides an opportunity for the Sector to look at the rates of adoption of geospatial tools and technologies in a number of other vertical areas. This is some of the work that we have to do as a community - to identify where the opportunities are, and what the role of the government is, and what are the opportunities for the private and nongovernmental and academic sectors. The study gives us a bit of a roadmap in terms of the rates of adoption in various vertical sectors.

What that does is provides us an opportunity for us to look at the rates of adoption and how people in different industries are adopting the tools. It gives the geomatics experts the opportunity to say “maybe there’s a business opportunity here, maybe there’s a research opportunity here” so on and so forth. And I don’t think we ever had that roadmap before.

 

You’ve identified how this roadmap will be useful for business and academia. How will the results of this study impact government or departmental priorities? How will it influence the direction taken within the CCMEO?

What we need to do is continue to work with the traditional players. Their work continues to provide a rock-solid component of the Canadian economy, and the work that they do is fundamental to governance in the country. There is a significant amount of work that’s yet to be done in that area, and that’s really reinforced by the study. The traditional sector continues to thrive and it’s important - it’s very important.

Because geospatial information is widespread throughout the economy, we know we need to work with a variety of players to make sure that the expertise that resides within those firms gets out into the national and international market place. Where there’s a government role to be played, where there are instances of market failure for example, or where it’s a job that only government could or should do - we have to fundamentally ask those questions. If there’s a viable private sector alternative, then we should be thinking about the private sector delivering that geospatial component. We need to understand the rate of adoption throughout the economy to help discern what the government role is in those components.

 

What is in the study that is telling you that the community needs to come together, and that coming together, specifically under GeoAlliance Canada, would have your support?

The really important thing about what GeoAlliance Canada represents is some of Canada’s best geomatics and geospatial minds coming together. There are others who are very good in the business that weren’t there. SafeSoftware, for example, just won an award as the best private sector company globally at the Geospatial World Forum. They’re a great Canadian company and it’s a great Canadian news story. Why aren’t they at the table with us?

We’ve got to reach out. From my perspective, 50-60 years ago, government was the only game in town. We did a lot of the mapping if not all the mapping. Now, we need to recognize that the game has changed. We have very capable private sector firms and new ones all the time. The study underscored the need to ensure the traditional sector remains strong but also that those new players in the geo community come together and work together, so that we can innovate together and we can create together. We can do R&D together. We can work in a way that harnesses the collective capacity of Canadians.

This community was one of the first to embrace open data. It’s also one of the first to embrace open collaboration, and I think that what we’re trying to do through the GeoAlliance organization is create this open community to capitalize on technology for the 21st century.

 

Together with the Pan-Canadian Geomatics Strategy, this study provides a solid springboard that GeoAlliance Canada would like to use to grow the sector out from the traditional group of players and bring in new companies. How do you think GeoAlliance Canada could best use the results of the Value Study to implement the Strategy?

The most important thing is to continue to bring the various players together. Reach out. Find new players. It’s important to bring governments together and new industries together. It’s important to reach out to the CIO communities across the country. They’re keen on open data. We have a wonderful ability with geospatial data that allows us to tie together various open data initiatives.

There’s a tremendous amount of intellectual capital in this country… we’ve just moved with this kind of technology from excellence in R&D into excellence in use. As Canadians we’ve had a bit of a head start on the world and we have an opportunity here to really capitalize on it.

I just came back from an international conference and people are struggling with the same issues. I’m very confident that in coming together in a very Canadian way, with a Canadian solution, by being open and bringing in our Canadian networks all around the world, we can really make a difference.

 

Could you tell me a little bit more about the methodology that was used to measure the value of the geomatics sector ($2.3 billion), geospatial technologies ($20.7 billion/1.1% of GDP/19K jobs), and open geospatial data ($695 million)? For those of us unfamiliar with economic analysis, how significant are those figures?

20.7 billion dollars is about 1% of productivity improvement as a result of geospatial information usage. From an economist point of view, a 1% impact of productivity and innovation is quite significant. The kind of impact that geospatial tools, technology and data have on the national economy means that we need to think very carefully about how we invest in these technologies and data.

That’s certainly some of the considerations we’re giving internally at CCMEO and what’s the right policy mix. That’ll take a lot of work. We do need to work with the community. We need to bring all the players together in a way that gives us the full picture.

 

Within the open data community there’s a study that’s talked about ad nauseam that pegs the value of open data globally at 30 trillion dollars. We’ve gotten to a point where there’s a fair amount of eye rolling about that because people don’t know whether that number can be trusted. Can you give an indication of how we can trust these numbers - they’re huge numbers - do you have confidence in them? Is there another piece of the study that will be released that will explain how those numbers were arrived at?

I’ve done a couple of public presentations about the approach and the methodology around the study. For now, I’ll just say that we had an internal steering group within NRCan that was advised by departmental economists and a community of practice of economists within the federal government that looked at every step in the process of designing the model, refining the model, looking at the values, looking at the results, and then making adjustments, and then looking at the findings. At every step of the way, there’s been a tremendous amount of oversight on our part, within NRCan.

HAL had an external advisory board as well. They worked with a number of key players to look at the model they used and how they put it into play. We went through some fairly lengthy processes which involved Government of Canada community of practice economists, and they gave the model a pretty rigorous review. At the end of the day, we’re confident of the model.

Part of the reason we undertook the study is we did know that there are a lot of numbers being thrown out there, and they’re massive. But rather than talk about some future potential, we wanted a snapshot of where things are in the Canadian economy in 2013. We wanted to measure to the best of our ability what we can measure. To that extent, we stand by the study.

 

Do you think there’s significant growth potential beyond the 20.7 billion? Or are we near the ceiling?

I’d rather speak to the facts, not hypotheticals. What the facts tell us is the rates of adoption in certain sectors are not as high as in other sectors. If you increase the rates of adoption in some of these areas, you’d think you’d have a positive impact. But we’ve got to do a fair bit of work to state that that is in fact true.

 

The study segments the industry based on the geospatial information value chain instead of according to the traditional disciplines (surveying, mapping, remote sensing, etc.). What was the reason for this change, and how does it affect our understanding of the sector?

It’s a question of convergence. There were a number of pretty smart people that got together in 2009 in Calgary at an event where we kicked off a fair bit of work, and we were told by the private sector and the academic sector that we needed to get a good handle on the impact of geomatics on the economy.

What we sometimes forget is that technological change has happened so quickly over the past 5-10 years and that our industry has been profoundly affected by the rate of rapid change. The introduction of the Blackberry, then Apple devices with GPS embedded in them, fundamentally changed the industry. We moved from a fairly silo’d industry to one where geo is almost everywhere. That, to me, tells us that we need to think about geospatial in a very different way.

The other thing the study revealed for us is that geomatics is not measured as a sector in industry codes - whether in Canada or internationally. While those who participate in it think of it as a sector, it’s not measured as a sector. It spoke to a need for us to get a better handle on how we actually measure the impact of the sector and how we think of the sector. Feedback from various community players and people involved in geo is that not everybody identifies themselves as a geomatics firm. So it tells us that we need to really think about how we describe ourselves. We have to address the question of identity in a meaningful way that doesn’t lose all the fabulous things that Canada has given to the world in terms of geomatics.

 



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