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Geospatial or Geomatics: The Headaches of Terminology in Canada

Great debates about the terms geomatics, geospatial, geoinformation and geoscience have occurred for decades. Additional terms like geoanalysis, geolocation, geocomputation and spatial data infrastructure are mixed into the slurry of ‘geo-ness’. There are even ‘invented’ geospatial terms.

Wikipedia says, “Geomatics is a similarly used term which encompasses geoinformatics, but geomatics focuses more so on surveying. Geoinformatics has at its core the technologies supporting the processes of acquiring, analyzing and visualizing spatial data. Both geomatics and geoinformatics include and rely heavily upon the theory and practical implications of geodesy.”


Terminology and Time

The Australian National Data Service points out that, “these days geospatial is also used to refer to the kinds of analyses you can do with the aid of computers and software – the combination of computer and software is called a Geographic Information Systems (GIS).” If you go to the homepage of the UK Ordnance Survey and type in ‘find geospatial’ the page will show zero results. Geospatial is obviously not the preferred term in the UK, but the letters ‘GI’ are found throughout the site, as is common elsewhere in Europe. Many sites in Germany do not have the word geospatial included and operate similarly to that of the UK Ordnance Survey.

The paper “The Geospatial Debate  – Considerations for the Development, Management and Use of Geospatial Data in Arizona” was made available in 2007 and contains many of the common arguments, debates and considerations people make when talking about questions of terminology. Many see the word ‘geospatial’ as emanating from a standards push and oriented toward aligning organizations in the United States toward common objectives which floundered without a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) process many years ago. As it would later turn out, 9/11 events would act to draw organizations and data together and ultimately put the U.S. GEOINT focus into action.

In Canada, the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI) was long the forerunner of all things ‘geo-‘ in the country. In its early days it established great success by establishing funding for community projects that would build awareness and promote the use of spatial data. There is little doubt that this approach generated many entrepreneurs in Canada, all aiming to put spatial data into communities in many ways. This also acted to promote education institutions to begin spatial data based courses.


Splintering and Diffusion Not Good For Business

Anyone attending many conferences, events and workshops involving spatial data and information around the world will find different places use different terms more prominently. Geoinformation is a term I often hear in Europe, less seldom in North America. Geospatial is often voiced in terms of the United States,  Canadians and those in France use the word geomatics and geomatique interchangeably and many Germans simply say ‘gis’ – literally meaning a system of geographic information exchange management. Scientific  communities tend to follow scientific terms like photogrammetry, remote sensing, geoscience and GIScience, often supported through universities and educational organizations. There are additionally many well known companies using spatial data and developing geotechnologies that do not include the word geospatial in their vocabulary.

Does all of this terminology give you a headache? It should. It causes me to scratch my head often. It is confusing, difficult to express, difficult to understand and not well known in most places, nor voiced by average humans working outside specialized areas.

When I was asked to write about this topic, I rolled my eyes and thought “here we go again” – having been down this road many times and heard all of the arguments and felt the tensions and confusion. So – I thought, what can I add to this discussion that strikes a positive and door opening opportunity?

As the level of social media has increased, the geocommunity has become more splintered as everyone becomes a publisher and, more often than not, tend to focus on the technology product they offer or know the best. This is both good – and bad.

Few avenues are available for learning about the ‘big picture’, how to connect the dots and how to actually accomplish integrated projects,  as many businesses and agencies focus on their own piece. The marketing has become narrowed to expertise, while the users cry out for people who can integrate, think critically and are able to assess situations and construct useful answers, discussions and debates.

Being able to think in a spatial context really drives services and innovations. Pumping technology alone is out – contributing to effective interchange is in. They both go hand in hand.

Canada’s needs for spatial data are extremely high, and I dare say, we are barely touching the surface on what is truly possible. Needs today are multi-disciplinary in scope, travel far from surveyors and GIS professionals alone, and often include business IT systems and link a myriad of users from truck drivers to mayors to scientists in their paths.

Canadians need to converge on these wider needs and develop whole new approaches for meeting spatial data needs requiring geographic information. Following other countries is not the way forward, leading is preferred and taking a position that seems unrecognizable, non-traditional, exploratory and different is a sign of leadership, risk taking in nature and manifests a willingness to push the limits for tomorrow.

We appear to be at a stage where simply selling product is not the only goal. There is a need to develop more fully engaged territorial solutions, holistic systems for urban and rural planning and to push spatial data into new horizons.


What Is Going On Around The Planet Today?

The fact is, spatial data is being used in many places and by many people around the world today. Some identify themselves as geo experts, most do not – yet, they all use spatial data and  geographic information in their own unique ways. As they speak, one often hears about their projects and applications, recognizing functional ties, but without conventional terminology.

The  ‘how’ is becoming much more important than ‘what’ technology is and the terminology. Some have recognized that there are many people creating applications with spatial data that never associate with traditional ‘geo’ types. They are not at the geo conferences, geo chats or geo socials. Examples of this can be found in the urban planning realm, where architects and urban planners barely understand or connect with the geo-communities.

They seldom associate closely with traditional mapping and surveying people, yet, many of their functional tasks are based on measurement, mapping and visualization. Similarly, many engineering people do not immediately associate with geospatial or geomatic experts, yet, watershed analysis, topographic mapping and planning, building information modelling and satellite imagery are clearly useful for their work.

Seismic surveyors and others involved in geophysical monitoring are similarly employing spatial technologies in a geographic manner, yet, seldom do they associate closely. On the other hand, maritime personnel and marine surveyors are more likely to associate with marine organizational structures.

If you are a cartographer, then the geospatial and geomatic world wraps around a cartographic perspective. If you are a forester, then forestry conferences are likely to provide higher value than remote sensing events (except for specialized remote sensing events like my professional friend). GIS people tend to sit in this corner while the CAD folks in the other. Lidar people have their own conferences and the atmospheric 3D measurement people are known to congregate … somewhere.  Can any of us afford to attend all of these events?


Changing Waves

At the present time, we see whole new areas involving augmented reality, simulation modelling, real-time visualization, gaming, 3D modelling, 3D design and animation who are  expanding and experiencing growth in terms of innovation. Yet, the connection between geospatial / geomatics and these areas is tenuous, distant and not clearly understood.

North America and Europe are well advanced and mature when it comes spatial information. Although it was not long ago in these places that many people toiled over file formats, how to share data and even who owned it. As maturity rose, needs increased. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs stepped in.

The level of spatial maturity has a lot to do with not only the complexity of an organization using spatial data, but also it’s level of tolerance and a willingness and capability to understand and integrate others nearby who would benefit from sharing, collaboration and breaking the barriers down.

Surveyors, for example, seem locked in time and oriented toward protecting the space connecting who can work on a task (presumably only surveyors), when in fact technological innovation is opening the door to others, employing automated technologies in new ways and gathering useful results, who would also benefit from the knowledge and experience of measurement professionals. I see a lot of re-inventing the wheel for many new applications that surveyors and others already know about. “Surveyors are from Pluto and animators, games developers, robotic sensor specialists, visualization manufacturers etc. are from Saturn.”

Look at the whole area of facial recognition, motion capture and visualization that is being used to support training, education and simulation. In this area there is a pronounced need for people who understand what measurement is, how to go about it and what works best. They are neither trained in remote sensing nor in surveying, yet they are capable of deploying these tools and technologies in very advanced ways that require accuracy and precision.

There are so many organizations and projects creating 3D surfaces, most of whom rarely use the term digital elevation model or terrain model, that I have lost count. Yet, any review of chat locations and bulletin boards will quickly reveal basic questions on data formats, how to make a surface, where the data is and so on. I feel sorry for many of these people, but it begs the question –  “why aren’t geospatial and geomatics people reaching them?”

Automation in the industrial complex is growing in importance, and similarly needs high quality spatial data knowledge and critical thinkers who understand the connection between tools and processes. The medical industry, particularly body scanning and imaging, is beginning to employ 3D in innovative new ways, but geospatial folks seem locked into landscapes.

In a day when so many satellites circling the earth continuously capturing and processing high resolution images, are the tasks of field workers changing to meet and capitalize on this capability or are we still stuck on paper and trying to figure out simple things like measuring the field boundaries? Would an unmanned aerial vehicle, robotic total station or some other technology provide better results? With sensors in roadways, GPS in automobiles and weather updates constantly available doesn’t it make sense that traffic signs are dynamic, cars can adjust for conditions and tracking capabilities for suspensions could change?

With so many people in Canada’s arctic is it really necessary for the military and businesses to continually service places while unmanned aerial vehicles operating on 3D flight management systems, based on spatial data, are able to deliver supplies more regularly, safely and cheaper?

Fundamental questions about technologies preceding our capacity to use them have always been present, but I would suggest that gulf is widening – not shortening. Have you noticed conferences are narrowing to individual products these days? I presume a few customers are better then many possible customers – what’s that all about?

The major point here is that innovation is driving applications in wider ways than geospatial or geomatics terms support. One might reasonably ask – “are these terms limiting development, growth and innovation?”

One of the best integration’s of geographic information systems I’ve seen was recently at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. A fully developed GIS is highly integrated in IT infrastructure there. No separation of geo experts and the like, but functional interests, capabilities and a spirit to promote the best airport in the world is driving the agenda across facilities management, business and flight operations.


Shifting from Terms to Actions

It was when the terms geospatial and geomatics became blurry and unintelligent that we began 3D Visualization World as an online magazine. Without a clear ‘geoness’ to it, it is the ‘un-geo’ magazine by hiding a lot of geo detail into content and letting the story, the work and accomplishment speak for themselves. It aims to focus on what spatial data can accomplish, be used for and achieve, rather than focusing on its terms. The problem we have is not just terminology, but also having enough people who can tell a complete story fairly, completely and in such a way that people would want to read it – not just be marketed to.  We need to more adept at discriminating the ingredients that build foundations, awareness and enlightenment, from pitch, popularity and shine.

There could be merit in recognizing geospatial and geomatics terminology solely on scale today. There could be low, medium and high resolution spatial applications. These equivalents recognize consumer to professional grade applications and services which will necessarily include different price points and will align types of data and services into functional areas.

I believe that we have seen the geographic information systems grow to become a truly integrated system that combines not only geographic kinds of data, but also acts as a cross-functional technology (at similar IT level) to enable and support lowest-to-highest levels of decision making.

There is no special GIS data, no special CAD and no special data. Today, we see individuals and groups using and applying data that they need, to solve specific kinds of problems that matter to them. The values of timeliness, type, availability and so on are all part of low, medium and high resolution solutions.


To Geospatial or Geomatics?

The focus needs to change from the terminology to what we are actually accomplishing and what we are capable of accomplishing in the future. There is little doubt that technology innovation has permitted current growth, and refinement has enabled wider use of geotechnology and development of new services.

I’d like to see professions begin to break down their institutional barriers, to become less rigid and more willing to engage others into their debates, issues and discussions. There is a real need to understand how spatial data could be better used in Canada and around the world today.  I think surveyors need to fundamentally change by embracing measurement in new ways while engaging new technology avenues. At the same time, spatial data is not only for landscapes, 3D modelling and GIS analysis in medical fields, anatomy and economic models are other opportunity areas.

There appears to be a need for Canadians to “think outside of the box” and to construct new ideas, dreams and notions for realizing spatial data opportunities across the country, both individually and together – and we should not wait around to begin.



3 comments on "Geospatial or Geomatics: The Headaches of Terminology in Canada"

  1. Edgar Baculi says:

    I love this article, at Ryerson University my program is called Geographic Analysis. I like the name and would actually leave it as it is, but Geoinformatics sounds really cool and spot on, on what my program is all about. A rose by any other name?

  2. Corinna Vester says:

    This is an excellent, well argued, timely article. I particularly appreciate the concluding thoughts on shifting from terms to action.

    Many of the ideas in this article are being considered by the Round Table Steering Committee as they build on the strategy dimensions identified in the White Paper – including ‘identity’ – to form a pan-Canadian ‘geomatics/geospatial/geo-information/?’ strategy. Currently, there is debate on what terminology should be used to best describe the activities encompassed by ‘geo’ so that those critical connections with non-geo specialists can be coherently made.

    And, just as Jeff describes in his article, for many the reaction is ‘oh no, not again’. What is evident is that, to-date, there isn’t an overarching term that all parts of the ‘geo’ community see themselves reflected in. Can consensus be reached? Is it critical for the sustainability of the community of ‘geo’ professionals and practitioners that it is?

  3. Corinna Vester says:

    PS. More information on the Canadian Geomatics Community Round Table and the development of a Pan-Canadian Geomatics(?) strategy can be found here: http://eratosthenes-project.org/.

Comments are closed.

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