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Furthering Canada’s Geomatics Strategy: New Visions – New Direction – New Future

The recent publication of the ‘Canadian Geomatics Community Strategy “White Paper” and Scenarios has added another perspective toward furthering the development of geomatics and the use of spatial data in Canada.  The “purpose is to provide a foundation for the Round Table to prepare a pan-Canadian Geomatics Sector strategy.”

Natural Resources Canada hired Hickling Arthurs Low Corporation (HAL), an Ottawa based company and Know Edge Limited, a British consulting group to pursue the project paper. The goal-oriented approach they advocate is based upon:

1) developing a vision or “ideal design” model of the future;
2) identifying potential future scenarios;
3) evaluating the future model against the scenarios;
4) mapping actions with potential events; and
5) identifying critical decisions.

In general, the white paper touches on many issues, asks many questions and follows a trajectory that scopes the boundaries of the future and tries to aim within them. While I find the paper contains many good points, it also contains many points that are not applicable. For example, “dealing with environmental challenges will be a key means for the Geomatics Sector to demonstrate its value,” it suggests. I wonder about that, since, supporting economic goals and pursuing first-rate infrastructure would invariably improve the environment. Although Canada is a resource-based economy, current trends in geomatics applications and maturity indicate that spatial data is now driving mature applications, often highly integrated and more complex in nature.

In fact, I would suggest that Canada’s geomatics sector, while well-known for developing geomatics technologies, has not developed a significant embedding of geoinformation within the economy enough. The country has not, for example,  completed a high-quality digital terrain models (DTM) for it’s own territory – something other nations are now beginning to use as a foundation for all geo-services within their economy.  The future work of Canada will be completed on a high quality geospatially based fabric digitally.

In addition, there is no continuously monitored air quality sensor network in Canada. And, there is no water quality measurement network (both above and below ground) – except for widely distanced spaced monitoring. We need a national water management strategy in view of the importance of water to economic growth, public health and biological factors.

Any spatial strategy for Canada must, I feel, directly engage the provinces. Much of the geomatic and geoinformation action today globally in such areas as measurement, remote sensing, infrastructure design, monitoring and mapping fields is all happening at high resolution – more locally. Whereas a Canadian presence at the 1:50,000 or 1:20,000 scale was admirable a while ago, today it is not, although coarse data serves purposes in international policy making.

Our aim should be toward very high resolution scales for all data. That is where services, demands and decisions are being made by businesses and consumers. This is manifested around the global.

At the same time, rapidly developing technologies, such as augmented reality, 3D GIS, simulation and robotics, for which Canada already has prominent research investment, are similarly dependent on high resolution data.  Most geomatics hardware manufacturers in Canada, for example, LiDAR, remote sensing, aerial photogrammetry makers and so on, are all producing products that consistently deliver spatial data below 5m resolution.

These companies continue to gain good export traction around the globe, however, the time has come for Canada to begin the domestic challenges of applying these same technologies in advanced ways internally. We need to connect the dots between being technology creators and technology advancing society within our cities and rural areas – and leverage that knowledge into future pathways for leadership.

Furthermore, developments in the fields of architecture, for example, are now readily integrating high quality measurements for design purposes. This data is being used to drive computational models that produce generative and parametric design products. Building information modelling (BIM) is rapidly rising up the ‘necessary’ ladder and is now being regulated in a few countries as a primary means for increasing collaboration on large infrastructure projects involving rail, airports, bridges, mining and offshore construction. Work in Europe is now recognizing 3D airport management and flight management and will undoubtedly expand into Canada, again built on high resolution geodata.

The agriculture and food industry is increasingly dependent on high resolution satellites to drive precision farming objectives in Canada. But another issue is now rising up as consumers are reaching into the agricultural food chain, as witnessed in Europe, and are now beginning to demand more details about how and where their food comes from. To deliver these answers we will require several capabilities, also beginning with high resolution data. The day when a consumer can see the actual field, know it’s history in the production of a food product is nearly upon us. After all, every single egg in a carton in Germany can be tracked right back to the farm producer today.

Several cities around the world are moving rapidly into 3D city models. We need to distinguish between pictures of 3D cities though, and those that are made of actual 3D geometry tied to databases and enriched with value. Canadians severely lack the later and there is a global opportunity to develop a strategy that figures out how to put such models together efficiently. It would incorporate the technology links that enable BIM and other infrastructure modellers and designers to use them. While other cities have 3D city models, far fewer of them are really capitalizing upon their high potential value. The City of Montreal is perhaps the exception, along with the City of Grande Prairie having one of the more advanced geo-based city models.

Canada’s National Research Council identifies several priorities beyond environment alone. Aerospace, materials, construction processes, and surface transportation technologies are all included. Each of these neatly includes geomatics and geospatial technologies.

While much of Canada’s earlier gains and positive outcomes were generated through data capture technologies and providing raw data opportunities to users, the future is likely to be much more about what whether or not the right data is available, is it fit for purpose and can it be integrated rapidly into processes by anyone with a need to solve a problem. Such knowledge is exportable and in demand, by the way.

Canada has dropped out of the Top 10 in the Global Innovation Index 2012. Few would argue that growth and innovation are linked together. And while the White Paper orients the debate around the future projection and potential realization of the geomatics industry, fundamental support for geomatics related research remains a high priority. Most company officials I hear about in my work regularly speak about 15-20% of their revenues oriented toward research. Is Canada supporting geotechnology at this rate – or anywhere near it?

The arguments and debates that were used to engage governance and policy makers about geospatial technologies and services yesteryear are no longer useful today. I do not believe that the term Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) has much value today. It is misunderstood, vague to many and few people can actually pinpoint a SDI in operation beyond groups of people working together. I notice the term SDI in Europe is similarly less used anymore.

It is critical that the debate switches our context from small to large scale, thereby complimenting the current high resolution capabilities of modern technologies – and applications – today. The history of national geospatial policy in Canada has largely been small-scale in orientation.

Because the Government of Canada has greater interest in broad-scale mapping and associated spatial data applications, it is time to begin realizing that trans-continental railroads, airports, infrastructure and monitoring originate from local levels and are encapsulated into national models from the ground up. Stronger mechanisms for integrating local governments into provincial economic plans, based on geospatial strategies, would appear to be needed. This report misses the mark when considering provincial involvement. To talk about crowd-sourcing and citizen engagement through national strategies is difficult, since, most of these are delivered at the provincial level and even local levels. Again, necessitating more provincial coordination with national bodies.

This raises a key point to think about though, “how do we engage provinces to think they benefit locally through national geomatic strategies?” It would be interesting to see how a newly aimed geospatial industry would flourish if it had, for example, 35% tax breaks that could be realized locally for 3-5 years at more local levels.

Canada is at a critical point when it comes to geomatics and geospatial sectors. There are strong international drivers that will cause Canadians to consider the quality and resolution of their applications and services in both urban and rural areas. Following trends is not the answer, rather, actively engaging research and development into new technologies and approaches and the knowledge industry that creates them is a traditional, sustainable route that has worked well previously. The aim remains the same, to lead and to deliver excellence. A high quality geomatics sector not only sells parts and pieces, it delivers solutions with outcomes that support higher quality living.

I would encourage everyone to read the White Paper and to think about some of the questions asked. None of us has all the answers. But together we can discuss, debate, agree and decide on the best way forward.

Finally, keep in mind that geomatics is not just technology looking for a solution, but is embedded into thinking, policy and Canada’s strategic objectives. Let’s assume geomatics will be embedded in the development of new transportation systems, new architecture, new resource development and new services for citizens as a starting point. Our competitors around the globe already do.

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