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Geomatics to Geomantics

From my memory (which is, unfortunately, diming with each passing year) the word “geomatics”, defined as the automation of geography, was first coined in French (Québec) as géomatique and then translated into English as geomatics. By my recollection, the word had little uptake outside of Canada and even less in the United States. I know that we started the Geomate project at MacDonald Dettwiler in the early 1990’s and that Geomatic was an alternate name to Geomate, but I don’t recall which word had more currency at the time.

As we move toward the middle of the second decade of the 21st century (I can’t believe I am saying that), it has occurred to me that Geomantics (the fusion of semantics and geography through automation) might be a word whose time has come, although I must confess it has an antique sound to it.

What might Geomantics be about? What standards and technologies might it embrace? How can we infuse more meaning into our modeling of geography so that searches can be more specific and meaningful, and so that the information we find can be a better fit for our applications?

When I first started working on the Geography Markup Language (GML) in 1998, we were in the midst of a new Internet that was driven largely by the emergence of XML and XML-related standards. Of particular concern was the ability to express more meaning about web pages, so that the semantic web might come into existence. A discussion with Tim Berners-Lee at the time convinced me that RDF/RDFS was the right way to go. The initial version of GML was written in RDFS, and carried the key ideas of application schemas, remote property values, and the object-property-value structure. The whole intent at the time was to be able to express meaning in relation to geography, with the belief that this was key to achieving wide area interoperability.

Intervening history has proven this assumption to be correct. While GML has blossomed as a data modeling language, leading to or providing the encoding of many concrete data languages such as CityGML, AIXM (aviation), DIGGS (geotechnical), GeoSciML, SensorML, etc., it has been less successful as a language for the general capture of meaning, something which is essential in all forms of wide area data integration, whether across an enterprise or across the globe. In my view, it is time to consider other ideas in relation to GML to infuse meaning into our models of geography.

One of these ideas is the use of the CSW-ebRIM data model. Note that I emphasize the data model, and that I am not talking at this point about catalogues, or registries, or even about web service interfaces. The CSW-ebRIM data model is a good mechanism for the expression of geomantics. It provides a generic object type called a RegistryObject, which provides a globally unique identifier, and to which one can attach properties, including geometric properties using GML. Typed objects, called ExtrinsicObjects, can be created with properties and can be used to represent various kinds of business objects, much like the notion of a GML feature. Here, however, the similarities end, and the value of CSW-ebRIM for geomantics begins. In CSW-ebRIM, there is the notion of a classification scheme (a.k.a. taxonomy or tagging), and any registry object can be classified according to such a taxonomy, which provides additional meaning to the data object. Moreover, a given registry object can be classified under multiple taxonomies at the same time, thus expressing different semantic aspects of the object. For example, the Jazz Club might be classified as a restaurant, a music venue, and a night club all at the same time. It is just not possible to do this in any remotely convenient way with GML.

CSW-ebRIM taxonomies (classification schemes) themselves can have properties, including geospatial properties, as can each of the categories (called C-Nodes) that make up the taxonomy. A taxonomy of wage categories might have the properties upper wage and lower wage for each category. Similarly, a taxonomy of soil types could have a multi-polygon valued property providing the spatial distribution of each category of soil type.

CSW-ebRIM also makes it easy to express relationships between objects. This is done using CSW-ebRIM Associations. For example, one can associate the Jazz Club to the building in which it is located, or to the home band that plays in it, or the menu of its restaurant. These Associations can also have properties, including geospatial ones. Associations can even be used to express the relationships between the categories of different classification schemes.

It should be clear that CSW-ebRIM is a powerful vehicle for the expression of meaning in relation to geography, and this is only half the story. Look for more articles on Geomantics in this space in the future.

4 comments on "Geomatics to Geomantics"

  1. Avatar Yvan Bédard says:

    Hi Ron,
    You are addressing an extremely important issue: semantics. This is the real challenge towards true interoperability since only the technical side of interoperability has really found practical solutions insofar. It has opened the door do a lot of semantics problems and risks of data misuses. This is a normal evolution of technology: solving problems when they happen. The days of semantics problems with real applications are coming (this has widely been predicted by researchers in spatial data quality).

    Regarding the suggestion of using Geomantics (as a replacement of Geomatics?), there are several issues that need to be addressed. First, let’s look at the success of Geomatics (in several languages). I have in my office the historical evidences of the following facts (this helps my personal memory which is also aging 😉 ). The word “goematics” appeared first in France (cf. Commission de géomatique) in the late 1960s as a synonym of digital mapping: it died because there was no additional content with regard to the already used terms. The word “photogeomatics” appeared also in France in the early 1970 for the computerization of the photogrammetric process: it also died because it brought no new concept in comparision to the terms already used. Then, the word geomatics reappeared in Quebec in the late 1970s to fill the need to name the new challenge and profession that was emerging (since on existing name would do it). Michel Paradis from Natural Resources Quebec coined that word without knowing it existed in France 10 years earlier. This was created for the Keynote speech of the 1982 Annual Meeting of today’s CIG, our national association. This was created especially to express more adequately the new field and challenges we were facing then. Because of the richness of the new concept presented, as well as the positive response from the community which recognized itself with these challenges (not totally I admit, as it is never the case with any new term), it had a major impact on our field. For the first time, we had a new term conveyed a new meaning which fitted with the digital revolution. There was clearly a paradigm shift clearly expressed by Michel Paradis and others (see papers by Michel Paradis, Pierre Gagnon, David Coleman, myself, etc). Geomatics spread that much because it conveyed a new message not conveyed by any previously existing word. This explains why Geomatics is known to come from Quebec rather than France. (BTW: it was never defined as the automation of geography by the creators and proponents of the words; too many people use words without ever reading their intented meaning).

    A second point that is important is to recognize that no single word has had major uptake worldwide. In fact, Geomatics is one of the most successful words in our field of the last 40 years, especially in non-English speaking countries where this word beatifully leads to the adjective, verb, action and adverbial variations. For example, in French, it is naturally used by many communities in Canada and Europe: municipalities, government agencies, companies, universities, associations, etc. It has truly become THE word for our field. It is also popular is Spanish, Portugeese and other languages. You’ll find several translations of geomatics in various languages worldwide, many university and college programs offering diplomas in geomatics outside of the USA. A detailed discussion about these was carried on on the Canadian Geomatics Round Table Group on LinkedIn and makes references to the literature. It is also interesting to note that only the words “maps”, “surveying”, “GPS” and “geography” are widely known (i.e. photogrammetry, geoinformatics, remote sensing, hydrography, etc. are known only by specialists).

    A third point relates to linguistic, cultural and regional contexts which make a word sounds right for one group but not for another. Informatics is such a word: like geomatics, it makes plenty of sence in French (informatique) and is used as the translation of computer science. However, it has never been widely adopted in English, especially in the US, in spite of being less restrictive and more practical than “computer science”. There exists many other examples like this one.

    We are in an era where we have to deal with a multiplicity of community languages, words and meanings. Everything evolves so fast that the vocabluary has a hard time to stabilize. Specialized web-based communities develop their own language. In addition, new buzzwords are also created for marketing reasons.

    Geomantics will make its road if it conveys a new paradigm different of what already exists. Being different, it will not replace existing words, it will be in addition to. I hope this comment will help for the next posts to clarify the underlying concept and see if it may have an impact. I totally agree with the need to consider semantics more explicitely in the Geo community. It happened for the computer science community when they started to talk about ontologies and the semantic web: it helped bringing attention to the semantic issues (even if they reinvented the wheel for a different technology, sometimes will reduced capabilities; cf. semantics database modeling, IRDS, data dictionaries, data specifications). To have some uptake outside of Canada and the United Statesa, Geomantics will also have to “sound right” in other languages and contexts in addition to conveying concepts not found in existing words

  2. Avatar Ron Lake says:

    Hi Yvan;

    Thanks for the history corrections. I was not really trying to coin a new word. My intent was to stress the importance of semantics im the encoding of geograohy, and hopefully to engender some discussion of the same.

    The suggestion of geomantics and even my review of the history of the term geomatics were more tongue in cheek. The main point is the importance of the expression of semantics in geography. I only came into the “geo” world in the late 1980’s, and first heard the word geomatics in English – to me it meant the automation of geography. As we working on Geomate – which was geography and automate – such an interpretation seemed natural.

    Thanks for the real history of geomatics. I did not know many of these details. Geomatique has a much monger history than I was aware.

  3. Avatar Yvan Bedard says:

    Hi Ron,

    You’re right, it is very important “to stress the importance of semantics in the encoding of geograohy, and hopefully to engender some discussion of the same.” Your post does a very good job at opening the eyes to readers about this issue as well as about elements of solutinos.

    One of the key ingredients in successful interoperability is the guarantee that the concepts represented by source geodata and functions are what final users of interoperable systems think they are. Thus, measuring the quality of interoperability is similar to measuring the quality of data: there are internal quality elements (matching the technical requirements of the original source) and external quality elements (fitness-for-use for the results). Using solutions such as CSW-ebRIM becomes very important as it provides some of the metadata necessary to measure the quality of interoperability and to minimize the risks of misuses.

    A few years ago, we designed a prototype using high-level metadata-matching to identify potential risks of semantics misinterpretation when interopereting. We did so for spatial data cubes accessible from different spatial OLAP implementations. It was not a full system as it was for a PhD thesis, but the results are IMHO a good indication of safer usage of interoperability using explicit semantics information as you suggest with CSW-ebRIM. (peer-reviewed papers are available on my web site, the PhD student was Tarek Sboui).

    Thanks Ron for bringing this key topic and clarifying the idea !

  4. Avatar Yvan Bedard says:

    Sorry for the large number of typos. The characters in the “comment” box are about size 6 on my displays at home and at work, and are very difficult to read before posting…

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