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Dr. Robert ‘Bob’ Ryerson: A Canadian Geomatics Perspective on our Industry and Future


GoGeomatics has had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Robert ‘Bob’ Ryerson of KIM Geomatics Corporation.   Along with his recently published book titled “Why ‘Where’ Matters“, Dr. Ryerson is Canada’s first PhD in Remote Sensing.  He was the Director General of the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing and is currently the CEO of KIM Geomatics Corporation.

GoGeomatics:  Welcome Dr. Ryerson to the GoGeomatics community.  We would like to give our readers some background.  Let’s start with some basic career history.  Could you tell us where you are from and what led you to a career in geomatics?

Dr. Ryerson:  I am originally from Grimsby, Ontario in the Niagara fruit-belt where I worked on my family’s farms and in our fruit wholesaling business during the summers while in high school. As the city marched towards us I was interested in why this was happening – why our unique land was being gobbled up for housing. At the same time I had a wonderful high school geography teacher – Bill Bell. Geography was one of nine subjects I took in my last year of high school. Bill Bell’s influence can be seen in the fact that of the 35 people in my high school geography class over half eventually earned degrees in geography and three of us got Ph.D.’s. Bill encouraged me to go to McMaster where I studied geography. I was interested in understanding land use change and to do so got involved in monitoring with aerial photography. In my third year I won a competition for a summer research position in the Department to work with Dr. Harold Wood on agricultural air photo interpretation. That work led to a BA Thesis, and my MA, and at Waterloo my PhD. I found that the monitoring work was more fun than the study of the land-use changes. In 1973, before I had finished my PhD, I was offered positions at CCRS, UCLA, Cornell, and NASA. At that time there was no shortage of positions! Perhaps hard to believe now but CCRS offered a better salary and more research opportunity than the others – $14,251 per year, as I recall! The rest, as they say, is history.

GoGeomatics:  You recently published a book titled “Why ‘Where’ Matters”.  Are you able to provide us with a brief summary of the message in your book?  For those who are interested, may we put a link to the book’s website? 

Dr. Ryerson:  There are two simple messages in our book. The first is that geographic information is profoundly important, as it always has been. The second is that those who understand and use this information well (whether individuals, companies, communities or countries) will prosper, and those who don’t won’t. But today we have better access to this information than at any previous time in history. The book explains in simple language why this is so, why it is important, how the information is created, and how it can be used. We show this by posing and then answering the sorts of everyday questions that might be asked by individuals, companies, communities and countries. We are pleased that reviews have been wonderful – one called it a “go-to reference book on geospatial technologies …a worthy addition to your geospatial library.” For those who want to see more of the book – or buy it – go to www.geoeconomy.com . For those who decide to buy our book, include GoGeo in your address on your order form and we will send $5 of the purchase price to GoGeomatics to help them continue their service to our community!

GoGeomatics:  Based on your book’s message, what is the importance of geomatics/GIS in today’s global economy?

Dr. Ryerson:  We argue in the book that we are in a new economy – what we call the GeoEconomy – which is driven by and dependent on geographic information. The signs for this are all around us for those who look. As I said before, it is pretty basic: those who use geo-information wisely and well will prosper and those who don’t won’t. We show how this is so in some detail in the book.

GoGeomatics:  Your career is very colorful with several published books, remote sensing projects assessing the use of radar in Africa to field work in California regarding the commercialization of airborne imaging for the wine industry.  What has been your most memorable project or accomplishment? 

Dr. Ryerson:  I have been blessed by having had the opportunity to work on some amazing projects with some brilliant people who cared a lot about what they did and how they did it. But as for naming one accomplishment – I can’t do it! As a geographer it is really neat to have been able to work in something like 35 countries around the world. And I have had a lot of success in my work both science-wise and otherwise…along with a few failures too! But in the final analysis my success is attributable to the people with whom I have worked – and being part of and building a number of different but successful teams has really been the one enduring accomplishment. This relates to another life-long passion – playing and coaching sports.

On a personal level it was good seeing my PhD applied to all of Ontario to assess what pollution in the Great Lakes might come from livestock. Developing the world’s first near-real time crop area assessment was neat, and another “first” came when our team did the world’s first large area integration of information from census, existing data in a GIS, along with information interpreted from satellite imagery and aerial photography. But it was also fun to be able to help sell Canadian remote sensing services and products overseas when that was part of my job, or seeing sales of satellite data increase by 400% in five years when that was part of my job. In the mid-1990s, with the government in a time of severe restraint – budgets were being cut by 40% in many departments – two of us built the rationale to convince the government to increase funding for earth observation by hundreds of millions of dollars. That was quite an accomplishment – and underlines the fact that even in difficult times one can justify the expenditure of money on geomatics. Indeed, our business usually increases when budgets get tighter…in such times governments and industry want to use geomatics to become more efficient.  It was during these cut-backs that I volunteered to leave government and I re-entered the private sector – which has also been fun but in a different way.

GoGeomatics:  Hindsight is always 20/20.  Is there anything you would have done differently or changed if you could re-start your career?

Dr. Ryerson:  One of life’s truisms is that you cannot go back… I have been involved with some university or college program somewhere from the 1970s to the present.  In the 1980s I was offered several opportunities to take senior positions in universities. I have always enjoyed research and dealing with students – students keep you young and invigorated. Every once in a while I wonder what might have happened if I had taken one of those positions.

GoGeomatics:  Geomatics is a rapidly changing industry.  How has the industry changed in Canada since the completion of your PhD? 

Dr. Ryerson:  What has changed? In a word, everything! People often talk about the technology – but that is only part of it – and perhaps not necessarily the most important part. To me the really important thing is the democratization of data and the changing business models of how access to data is managed today compared to ten to fifteen years ago.  It should also be instructive to those of us in the field that to my knowledge only one person whose business started and stayed in geomatics has become truly wealthy. (By wealthy I mean hundreds of millions of dollars…) Most of the wealth being generated with geospatial information has been realized by people from outside the geospatial world – think Google, for example. These “outsiders” have brought in a variety of different business models to take advantage of the data in ways those of us immersed in the industry failed to see.

GoGeomatics:  Are there any improvements you feel necessary for Canada to become a major player in the Geomatics industry?  Where do you see the industry heading?

Dr. Ryerson:  Canada has long been an important player in geomatics. Following World War II we were dominant in the very important aerial survey business. Later we dominated the image analysis business. Both have since diminished for a variety of reasons – some related to government policy and some related to protectionism in the US and European markets. We invented GIS, airborne lidar, commercial airborne radar, the first lower cost satellite data reception stations, the first operational radar satellite, and the list could go on. But today we remain important in a commercial sense in but two of these areas. Perhaps what we should be discussing is how that role has diminished and why.

As for major improvements, we need better coordination between industry, government and academe. The mechanisms to foster this coordination are broken. There are too many fiefdoms, too many would-be kings. At one time we were studied by others to see why we had the successes we had. We have forgotten our own lessons and our own experience. We need better government policies, developed in concert with the full range of users and the full range of industry and academe too – not simply with people who are standing on one soapbox or another. Policies must reflect reality – not what the would-be kings want to hear. We need mechanisms that will foster the commercialization of the wonderful research being done across Canada. There has been some progress recently with GEOIDE (whose future research funding is no longer certain) and TECTERRA which has just started – and for TECTERRA it is too soon to make any assessments as to how well it will do, although all indications are positive.

Another consideration is how governments address management. It is simply not true that a good manager can manage anything, any more than it is true that all scientists make bad (or good) managers. Perhaps we need more people moving between government, academe and industry to create an atmosphere based on a better and broader understanding. In my experience the people in government who truly understand industry are as few as the industry people who truly understand government!

As to where the industry is heading, the big markets in the future will be in delivery of government services, especially in health and epidemiology. This will become increasingly important with the current demographics and the demands that will be placed on our health system. Predicting and reacting to climate change will also be a growth industry for those in the environmental field, especially when it comes to conflicting demands for fresh water.

GoGeomatics: How has the job market changed?

Dr. Ryerson:

  1. Most geomatics jobs are no longer with geomatics firms or agencies. They are with environmental engineering companies, forestry companies, utilities, and the like. Indeed, many people (my son included) are learning their geo-skills in what would have been considered application areas such as forestry. This implies that one should combine knowledge of geomatics with some other field.
  2. Many of the lower level positions have migrated to either automation or to overseas suppliers. This implies that it is a good thing to work in areas where there is a need for some field work or local familiarity to do the job. As my son the forester says, the trees grow here – they cannot export forest management.
  3. Today employers want to see both academic training (to show you can think) and some technical training – how to operate the systems they use.
  4. Employers also want relevant experience. As a result, there is some interest in volunteer positions and a great deal of interest in co-op training. This is especially so (and especially important) at the college level.
  5. To move up in an organization will require more than a technical college level training and/or a BA.
  6. There will always be a place for people who can communicate their technical knowledge to the non-techies. Writing, interpersonal, and linguistic skills will be increasingly important, as will the willingness to work overseas. Without such skills technical understanding won’t get you very far.

GoGeomatics: What about Geomatics education in Canada?  Is there demand for more programs?  Is the industry lacking in professionals?

Dr. Ryerson:  Yes there is a demand for more programs. The demand will increasingly be for programs that will prepare people to help the rest of society to think geospatially. By that I mean that there will be a demand for people who can help government and industry be more efficient and make decision-making more transparent through the application of geo-information. There will also be a demand for in-service or continuing education courses. And colleges and universities will want to offer them since the number of full-time young students will begin to drop in 2013. Therefore, to keep up their current staffing levels, they will have to offer relevant in-service training. While today many of the so-called “Baby-boomers” (of which I am one) occupy senior positions many of these people will be retiring in the coming few years (this is already starting in government where people retire earlier than we usually do in the private sector) and there will be senior positions – for those with the right skill set and training.

GoGeomatics: Can you provide some advice for a recent geomatics grad who is looking for employment?  How do they become more competitive in the geomatics job market?  Any advice for those in mid career and at the management level positions?

Dr. Ryerson:  I am not sure how valid my advice here will be – we offer advice in policy development, business development, marketing, strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, and the like. We don’t actually DO geomatics. Since we do not actually hire or work with recent graduates, my perspective will be somewhat different. Here I am assuming that someone is looking to track into a professional position as opposed to a position that is primarily technical, although some of this advice will be suitable for anyone.

  1. First, make sure that your writing and grammar are as good as can be. Take a course in writing. Have an excellent writer critique your work – especially your CV. Practice your writing. Really!
  2. Second, if you are young (or older for that matter) get a haircut; lose the more obvious piercings and the purple and yellow hair. You really do get only one opportunity to make a first impression. And appearance counts…even if it is not supposed to.
  3. Third, join a group involved in geomatics. Go to meetings and seminars, but wear appropriate clothing – for example at a minimum a collared shirt and slacks for a man, slacks and blouse for a woman. Clothing does matter! Become quietly visible by being there and pass out professional looking business cards – but learn how to do that right.
  4. Fourth, listen to experts. READ.
  5. Fifth, know some area other than geomatics – something that truly interests you. Read about that field, take a course, learn about the geospatial technologies being used in that field, and who is working in the intersection between that field and geomatics – who is doing neat stuff and who is developing the neat (and commercial) applications. Try to find someone who is close and approachable to talk to or interact with.
  6. Sixth, find a mentor. Contact that expert developing the neat applications for advice on how you can get into that area. Most people who are leaders in the field are thrilled if they get interest from a young and knowledgeable person who wants to work in the same area as they do. But don’t try to fake interest or knowledge. I have mentored many people – some who have become far more successful than I have been – and I am thrilled to see their success.

GoGeomatics:  Geomatics has several applications.  Do you have a specific area that stirs your interest?

Dr. Ryerson:  I would go much further and say that geomatics has limitless applications. For me, international development is an important one. Much of the world’s strife can be related to limited development and poor job prospects. That can usually be tied to poor resource and/or environmental management and planning – all of which depend on geo-information. Quite simply, geo-information is critical in fostering, managing, and tracking development.

I have my degrees in geography and environmental studies – and the environment is an obvious area of growing interest – and one in which a number of Canadian companies are making a significant mark. The linkages between law, geomatics and the environment are also one that is quite interesting.

We want to thank Dr. Ryerson for taking the time to share his thoughts with us.  It has been an honor to speak with a pioneer of the geomatics industry.  For more information on Dr. Ryerson’s new book please visit http://www.geoeconomy.com/.  If you wish to contact Dr. Ryerson his e-mail is bryerson@kimgeomatics.com.  For information on KIM Geomatics Corporation please visit http://kimgeomatics.com/.

One comment on "Dr. Robert ‘Bob’ Ryerson: A Canadian Geomatics Perspective on our Industry and Future"

  1. ZebraGIS says:

    I think Bob is right about the retirements that are going to be happening across the board as the baby boomers move out of the workforce. I think we will see a lot more geomatics jobs opening up for those of us coming up.

    Great Post. You don’t see enough of this about the industry in Canada and what is going on

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