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Leading in times of disruption: Canada’s geospatial past, present and future

Canada’s Geospatial Past

We can be proud of our history and achievements in the fields of Science, Geography, and Geomatics. From the first edition of National Atlas of Canada back in 1906, the National Air Photo Library in the 1940s, to the work of Dr. Larry Morley, a geophysicist, remote sensing pioneer and the first DG of Canada’s Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS), to Dr. Roger Tomlinson, the father of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) in the ‘60s and ‘70s, both considered giants in their respective fields, we have made significant contributions of geospatial information and services to Canada’s economy and society.

Roger Tomlinson, shown during a trip to Labrador’s Kaumaget Mountains in 1957, created the world’s first computerized geographic information system.

In the ‘70s, we established Canada’s first satellite receiving station Gatineau and Centre for Topographic Information in Sherbrooke, we launched RADARSAT in the ‘80s, published the Atlas of Canada as one of the first electronic online atlases in the World in the 1990s, enabled numerous GeoConnections programs, established the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI) in early 2000s and did not stop there.

The term ‘geomatics’ was invented in Canada in the late 1980s and has been adopted by most English speaking countries.

Looking back, the advent of airplanes after WWII enabled air photography and imaging in Canada with Convair, an image acquisition aircraft. The use of satellite, RADAR and sensor technologies invented in the 70’s is still a powerful and cost-effective tool to monitor our land, water and borders.

Although “disruptive technology” and “disruptive innovation” may be recently coined terms, our past teaches us that the innovation and leveraging of disruptive technologies were instrumental in securing Canada’s leadership in Geomatics.

Canada’s Geospatial Present

Modern geomatics is a Canadian invention that has spawned an industry generating over $2 billion in products and services annually, and employing a workforce of approximately 30,000. Remote sensing, a core geomatics technology, plays a key role in this sector.

Pokémon Go

The ability to make Earth observations from space is one of the great successes of the space age. We saw earlier that Canada has long enjoyed leadership in remote sensing research and development. For both scientists and operational users of the data, however, this success has been limited by delays and a lack of investment in innovation and sufficient IM-IT infrastructure and processes.

Consequently, Canada presently lags behind countries such as UK, US and Australia. This does not mean that we did not have recent successes and investments in geospatial data and innovation, thanks to the great work by the Canadian government, companies and academia. This only means that there are more opportunities than ever for leveraging innovation and disruptive technologies of today.

Today, geospatial technologies are embedded in many of the workflows that support the Fourth Industrial Revolution and therefore invaluable to users.

This means that geospatial information is no longer the domain of specialists and suddenly geospatial information has become a context for the rest of our augmented existence.

From Pokémon Go, to Uber and autonomous vehicles (AV), Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart applications and on-line mapping tools give the public almost instant access to a wealth of information that is tied to a geographic location, bridging the real world with the digital world.

This only will increase appetites for more maps and location data than ever before, but it won’t be possible without agreed-upon rules for sharing this data, which is essential for taking advantage of the true potential of this resource.

Canada’s “open by default” policy focuses on making government information available for innovation, meeting increased demands for citizen empowerment, solving complex problems and creating social opportunity, opportunity for positive change, connecting government, pre-commercial research and science, and economic opportunity.

Led by NRCan, and in collaboration with 21 departments and agencies participating in Federal Committee on Geomatics and Earth Observations (FCGEO), the Federal Geospatial Platform (FGP) and Open Maps initiatives play a key role in enabling the GC to deliver on that commitment.

Today, the Federal Geospatial Platform (FGP) plays a key role in bringing together the Canadian government’s economic, social and environmental data to better support location-based decision-making on a range of complex issues, such as responsible resource development, sovereignty, indigenous community development, environmental management, regulatory reviews, and safety and security.

Leveraging a common platform of technical infrastructure, policies, standards and governance enabled the Government of Canada to make more high-quality, authoritative, and useable geospatial data available in open formats to support innovation and better services for Canadians.

The present lessons for the future include the importance of open standards for interoperability and the crucial role of cross-functional teams in leveraging disruptive technologies for digital transformation, making information accessible and usable to innovators in academic, private and public sectors.

Canada’s Geospatial Future

In the future, geospatial information will continue to be fundamental to improved decisions and faster growth. Maintaining our leadership position in this fast-moving, competitive field will depend on innovative researchers in academia, public and private sectors, who are at the forefront of sensor and visualization technologies.

LiDAR in future automotive applications

The increasing availability of low-cost sensors, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and High-Performance Computing (HPC) infrastructures allows Geomatics to widen its application scope by automating new challenging tasks related to the modeling of the observations provided by these new tools.

Cloud Computing will provide critical support to data processing and obtaining value for better decision support, research, and operations for various geospatial domains.

Smart Cities use the Internet of Things (IoT), which includes devices such as connected sensors, lights, and meters to collect and analyze data. The cities then use this data to improve infrastructure, public utilities and services, and more. According to Dr. Monica Wachowicz, University of New Brunswick, “Over the next decade, the real-time Smart City is likely to become a reality in many of the world’s cities. Co-ordination, communication, coupling, and integration are all different methods involved in developing the smart city space of tomorrow.”

Geomatics will play a crucial role in making Smart Cities a reality. It is envisioned that the advancement of Geomatics will make a great contribution to human sustainable development. Location intelligence is an emerging scientific field that is giving rise to new data scientists who will combine the skills and talents from often disjointed areas of expertise (e.g. geomatics and sociology).

The ability to combine deep computational expertise with creativity and a socially insightful view of the world in the creation of niche apps, such as NRCan’s prototype flood map app, will become increasingly important. For example, this prototype map app provides better intelligence to first responders and public alike using crowdsourcing for validation of satellite and drone observations in real-time.

This future will be possible if geospatial information is systemically managed as an enterprise strategic asset along with metadata, governance and stewardship. We need to work more collaboratively in an ecosystem across Canada, through cross-functional groups focused on innovation and leveraging disruptive technologies, towards achieving Government priorities and better lives for Canadians. To avoid repeating the failures of the recent past, we must invest in innovation and equip scientists with sufficient IM-IT infrastructure and processes.

Continued collaboration between the Canadian public, private sector, academia, municipal, provincial and federal governments will be the key to achieving the vision of the future where decisions and actions for the benefit of Canadians are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations, geospatial information and tools.

Canada has demonstrated that it can lead in times of disruption and if the leadership in the modern age of disruption seems challenging, the potential benefits to Canadians can be proportionally large.

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