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Geomatics Leadership In Canada: Assessing The State and Challenges

When GoGeomatics Canada asked me to write on the topic of  “leadership in the geomatics community in Canada” I pondered the question a while. In many ways I see Canada’s geomatics sector from the outside in, living abroad while having understanding and knowledge (and contact) with those inside Canada. This has advantages – and probably some disadvantages. Nevertheless, so much of what a geomatics and geospatial sector does in relation to leadership today is directly connected to the international marketplace – Canadians are not the largest customers of their own products (and knowledge) necessarily.  Having said that, there are both national and international dimensions to Canadian leadership in the geomatics sector.

Geographic information systems (GIS) were first developed in Canada, Roger Tomlinson, a resident in Ottawa was responsible for bringing that technology to fruition. One of the world’s leading spatial information data management tools is designed and developed in Vancouver, providing Extract-Transform-Load capabilities for disparate spatial data systems. There are several globally known geomatics technology providers in the Toronto area, providing remote sensing, aerial triangulation and 3D visualization services and technologies. In New Brunswick you will find a world leader in marine charting and maritime mapping. In addition, Alberta can speak to a strong global positioning system (GNSS) sector in both research and applications. Saskatchewan has a number of agriculturally related industries providing advanced services. There are many more.

When it comes to leadership in terms of output for education, research and businesses, there is leadership in Canada and that is demonstrated through the scale of international operations for geomatics related technologies services being providing, as well as domestic use. I’ve participated in cases where the Canadian Government has supported business development through it’s embassy’s, and I have seen several business, institutions and provinces represented around the world at conferences – all seeking to connect Canadians with international business opportunities, projects and new customers.  Canadian geomatics professionals do not seem vociferous about their efforts – enough. Perhaps it is cultural, or perhaps they are simply too busy ‘doing it’?

Although we can find many Canadian-based technologies in use world-wide, I am not aware of any study that compares return-on-investment in terms of a national industry vis-a-vis global involvement, participation and the contributions to other countries Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That would be interesting to read and learn about, even in a vague sense – and show leadership.  How is Canada’s GPS industry changing the world? How is Canada’s 3D technology being used in mining, forestry and oceanography around the world? What is the story? This is a challenge worth pursuing.

Because Canada is such a large country, the costs of travel are high, by far much greater than Europeans, for example. This has a negative impact when it comes to getting geomatics people together. Large travel budgets are off the radar for many smaller Canadian companies, but the energy and interest is still there. Another challenge is the development of a suitable online, interactive capability for Canadian geomatics sector that helps people to see, meet and exchange together. Hardcopy print does not achieve this, online activity is an improvement, but true interaction, especially across time zones is needed. Advancements in online media are now pursuing these challenges, but much more could and needs to be done.

Unfortunately the tendency for most companies today is to hold independent conferences and workshops. While this has benefits for existing customers, it splinters the establishment of a wider community as James Boxall suggests in It’s Time for a Moon Shot for the Spatial Sector in Canada!‘ The geospatial media has been commenting on this factor for a little while now, noting that events in many places are becoming too focused and detached from an overall sense of community.

All of this points to some of the real issues that contribute toward difficulty for seeing and understanding geomatics leadership. There are notable exceptions when it comes to keeping an eye on the communities. The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), for example, has served as an integrative force when it comes to bringing together users and businesses interested in common formats, standards and interoperable conditions.  In Europe, the INSPIRE Directive is the basis for a collective and integrated pathway for spatial data in Europe. It achieves its goals by bringing together 27 nations in the European Union (and you thought 10 provinces and 2 territories was difficult in Canada).  INSPIRE does this by considering the needed ‘basic’ data for Europe, so trans-boundary decision-making can readily be achieved.

Industry has also shown leadership in terms of global presence and a desire to support and grow a community of geomatics and geospatial professionals. One of the most respected in this case has been Esri founder and president Jack Dangermond. He has shown leadership through his willingness to invest in and support different GIS user communities, often creating the background to dialogue and exchange of ideas.  His company operates in Canada. Another is Greg Bentley of Bentley Systems, who has slowly integrated a wide range of AEC related companies acquired over time, into a truly integrated company – serving to integrate the participants and to build opportunities – not just acting as acquisitions. Several key Bentley researchers and developers live and work in Quebec and it’s products support several majors in the Canadian energy industry.

Intermap, a leading 3D terrain data provider globally has corporate headquarters in Calgary and trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Dr. Clifford Anger of ITRES is the mind behind the CASI remote sensors based in Alberta. His company has been involved in projects around the globe. CARIS (Computer Aided Resource Information System) originated from the University of New Brunswick, and some of the most advanced research in global mining involving spatial data originates from the University of Alberta.

When we speak about leadership in geomatics, I wonder if it is lacking in Canada. Surely all of these successes in research and business exemplify the engine is running, stuff is happening and things are being produced. On a ratio of output as a function of population total, the results are impressive. More needs to be done, and the never-ending effort must continually be made with laser-like focus. So we can say that Canadian companies are demonstrating leadership in the geomatics sector globally with above average (with more needed) impacts.

But is Canada preparing new students for a national and globally active geospatial future? More investment is needed and greater attention needs to be made when it comes to understanding where and how the world is changing and the relation of geomatics and geospatial technologies to it.

The U.S. government presented a $20 million grant to  Salt Lake Community College in Utah this week. “SLCC is a partner in the $20 million National Information, Security, and Geospatial Technology Consortium. Funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant, this partnership will help the College train people for new and emerging jobs in geospatial technologies. As a partner in grant, SLCC is part of a national consortium including colleges from six states”  The U.S. also published a document this week by the National Academy entitled ‘Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence‘. What is striking about this document is that it directly ties geospatial technology to economic growth and GDP.  It identifies the importance of geospatial technology across the economy.

Canada needs leadership when it comes to articulating the linkages between GIS, survey technology, 3D, visualization, augmented reality and a host of other mobility technologies built on spatial data. The country needs to vastly expand beyond the resource-based line of thinking, extend beyond land surveying alone and to identify the Internet-based challenges and opportunities that a geomatics-driven awareness could bring. There are several emerging areas that engage spatial data and geomatics which are ripe for exploration, research and application development.

While Natural Resources Canada has provided good support to spatial data infrastructure and geomatics in Canada, the global marketplace driving economy’s will increasingly be corporate funded and supported into the future as governments struggle with budgets. A mechanism for engaging Canadians into a wider discussion and dialogue that transcends education, training, research and business is needed. While Natural Resources Canada ought to remain in relation to government strategies, the tide has turned globally, where most Canadian technology goes, and a need for efforts based on spatial knowledge, awareness and development, in addition to resources is a central focus that is needed.

Canada has much to point to when it comes to leadership in geomatics. My sense is that when people speak about a lack of leadership, they are actually talking about a detachment from an overall thrust, engagement and rise in directed strategy that a more business oriented focus would bring – at a national level. This demands more than acting to associate, it demands a new strategy for global growth that links domestic geomatic investment.

New ideas are needed, new structures are needed for meeting a world that is the market – from resource, agriculture, environmental,  logistics and spatial health opportunities globally.  I am pretty sure the desire is there.

2 comments on "Geomatics Leadership In Canada: Assessing The State and Challenges"

  1. Perry R. Peterson says:

    Very accurate view from outside. Some additional points you are no doubt aware, many business and technical leaders within US or other geomatics firms outside Canada are Canadians – examples include Perry Evans of MapQuest and Local Matters, Kim Fennel of deCarta, Mark Doherty of Intergraph. You mentioned OGC which has membership is full of leading innovative Canadians and their companies – Cubewerx, Galdos, Compusult, PCI Geomatics, you mention Safe Software (FME). Canadian companies also lead in important open source efforts: Refractions Research with POSTGIS, D.M. Solutions with MapServer, Frank Warmerdam with GDAL. Much of this has to do with our geography, Canadians tend to define ourselves by it, but huge amount of credit should go to the Canadian Federal Government who continue to support these efforts. The GeoConnections program is one, the the most attractive R&D tax credits in the world another.

    Does Canada have the leadership and private capital that can create a home run commercial success from this mix? I think so – the main ingredients are certainly there.

    Perry Peterson
    President of the PYXIS innovation
    Professor at Loyalist College

  2. Clark Beattie says:

    I recently saw some interesting statistics, published by Grad Schools.com and quoted in a study done for Google, that confrim Canada’s leadership in Geomatics, at least from the educational perspective. In the worldwide ranking of availablity of graduate degrees in GIS, Canada ranked an impressive 3rd with 19 institutions, UK had 26 and the USA had 125.
    In our typical Canadian fashion we go about our business without fanfare. As you correctly point out many individual Canadians have been instrumental in providng the thought leadership behind well known and some not so well known ventures. Our smaller economic base will always be an issue but for those who were more risk adverse, international success is often available. Certainly, the globalization of our business will offer new challenges and opportunites for companies to participate. Hopefully the trend towards open trade will minimize the barriers for the little guys to succeed.

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