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Missed Opportunities in Canadian Geomatics: Lessons for the Future?

Jon Murphy knows how to ask some interesting questions – which is perhaps why I like reading what comes out from GoGeomatics. He asked me to write about missed opportunities in Canada that I have seen in my career in geomatics. The interesting part of the assessment of missed opportunities is the discussion of “why.” Why were opportunities missed? Are there lessons to be learned? As my good friend Dr. Bob O’Neil commented to me as we discussed this column (and he also suggested the Sixth Missed Opportunity) “Some things are correctly classed as missed opportunities but that should not imply, necessarily, that something went wrong, a mistake was made or that anyone suffered a lack of vision.  Missed opportunities are a part of life for people and nations. The situation can look different through the lens of time. It is better to learn from the events, look for the critical elements in the dialog, look for the insightful perspectives and incorporate them into subsequent decisions.” Mind you, there were some mistakes made, but that is the nature of decision-making. Better to occasionally make a bad decision than to never make any decisions! And the really interesting bit is the assessment of what opportunities may be missed in the future.

I don’t like to be known as one who is only negative. There are many opportunities that WERE realized – but talking about them is far less contentious, and perhaps for that reason, far less interesting! (On my success list are: PCI in image analysis; MDA in building satellite receiving stations; CCRS and Optech and lidar; Caris with oceanographic software; the National Atlas leading us into the Internet age; and the commercial activities that have come out of programs at Laval, UNB and Calgary.)

My list of missed opportunities has been born out of my personal experience and understanding of events and decisions. To a certain extent it is therefore subjective. So, here is my list of missed opportunities.

First: GIS

I know that anyone who has been in the field for any length of time will have their own personal list. One thing will be on everyone’s list – the fact that GIS was invented here in Canada in the late 1960s, but has been commercialized largely by US companies, notably ESRI. Why? Some will say that our industry wasn’t as quick off the mark as Jack Dangermond was in the USA. Others point to the decision by the Government of Ontario to buy ESRI software, not what was available from Tydac or Geovision. Still others will say that the Canadians involved were largely from government and were more consultants than businessmen. While there are no simple answers as to why – it was a missed opportunity.

Second: Photogrammetric Systems

Long before GIS was a gleam in Roger Tomlinson’s eye, Canada was expert in photogrammetric systems and later orthophotogaphy. Perhaps the culmination of our photogrammetric expertise was in the work by National Research Council Scientists used to control the Canadarm. While there has been the odd flurry by people like Pat Wong of ISM Systems and the ortho-photo work by PCI, the bulk of the commercial photogrammetric systems business has long been taken over by others. Perhaps this relates to the domination of the US military as a buyer of systems, or maybe it is for some other reason and perhaps it really isn’t a lost opportunity…it just seems like it.

Third: International Post Graduate Program in Remote Sensing

Most people are not aware that in the early going the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS) was considering the development of a training centre for remote sensing and the geospatial sciences. A group of academics at Waterloo, Guelph, Toronto and McMaster were running an inter-university post-graduate course focusing on remote sensing and photogrammetry. (Some of those who took that course included me, Josef Cihlar, Bill Bruce and Tom Alfoldi.) The leader of that program, Dr. Dieter Steiner, and several other faculty members and one PhD student and prospective faculty member (me!) got together to write a proposal for a training centre that would attract international students in remote sensing. It seems that at least one province complained that such an activity supported by the federal government amounted to a federal incursion into education – a provincial responsibility under the British North America Act. One can only wonder what might have happened if such a centre had been developed here. Would we have secured even more of the market for remote sensing goods and services? Would we have taken some of the space ITC has enjoyed over the years since? Probably yes to both questions, but we will never know.

Fourth: Death of CACRS

CACRS (pronounced “Kackers”) was the Canadian Advisory Committee of Remote Sensing. It met every year to provide advice to CCRS in what was really a no-holds-barred bear pit session. Constructive criticism and the occasional bouquet were given by 60 or more representatives from industry, academe, other federal agencies and provincial governments. While the early CCRS leadership had a wonderful vision and a management style way ahead of its time, many of their ideas and others that guided remote sensing through to the late 1980s were validated, born, or given substance at CACRS meetings. The idea of a radar remote sensing satellite, for example, was first broached at a CACRS meeting in 1974 when a report was prepared for then DG Larry Morley. Eventually it was decided that CACRS would have more “clout” if it advised the Minister, not a Director General, and a much smaller committee was formed. Interestingly enough that committee never met the Minister in its first years of existence. I began the process to re-start CACRS in 2004, but left CCRS before we got it in place. While at times unruly, I often wonder, what would have happened had the entire field of geomatics had such a guiding (if at times unruly) hand? Would the same mistakes have been made?

Fifth: Radar vs. Optical

CCRS began life working with optical and thermal data. In the mid-late 1970s northern development spurred the need for all-weather monitoring and the interest in radar was born. Over time more and more resources were put into radar remote sensing. With the approval of Radarsat came money for the Canadian Space Agency and it was this money that kept much of CCRS’s applications activities going after the budget cuts of 1994. The old saying “He who has the gold makes the rules” came to influence the work CCRS did. There was a conscious movement away from optical remote sensing to radar. In my opinion, attempts were made to make Radarsat data provide information it was either not able to do or not able to do as well as optical data. (That is not to say that Radarsat data were not useful – they were and they are!) There was also interest in hyperspectral data which appears to be useful for a variety of applications including mineral exploration, agriculture, and environmental monitoring – all very important to Canada. In hyperspectral we have a significant airborne capability and a solid research base.  But those championing that technology (including me!) were unable to gain traction. Have we missed an opportunity by putting most of our earth observation eggs in the radar basket?

Sixth: Ignoring Potential Partnerships with India in Earth Observation

In the early days CCRS focused on alliances with NASA/NOAA and ESA.  While instrumental in starting the Committee on Earth Observing Satellites (CEOS) CCRS and Canada missed some opportunities to be a leader among what might be called the second tier of the international space/EO community.  India, China and Japan, for example, were building EO capability for a number of nationalistic reasons. From time to time I was “loaned” to agencies of the UN and the IDRC to work in the development context, primarily in Asia. After one of my trips that included a week in India we were offered some interesting and almost zero cost opportunities to receive Indian high resolution data. The opportunity was not taken up. Perhaps had CCRS received Indian data, a very different set of alliances might have developed.

Seventh: The “Geomatics Service Firm” Concept

Many of those in the geomatics field (myself included for a time) measured the success and growth of geomatics by measuring how many companies were “in the business” and how many people they employed. But geomatics firms never seemed to grow beyond 300 employees in Canada – with the exception of a couple firms based primarily on land information. What was curious was that it seemed that when service companies reached a number of something like 300 employees they seemed to go down-hill, shedding employees as they went. This was explained to me as a case of the companies growing to take on big contracts, but there were not enough big contracts to keep the companies going and there were barriers placed in front of Canadian firms operating in the USA. But this demise of larger firms is a red herring that seems to suggest that large geomatics firms cannot exist. The problem is that we have been looking at the wrong business model, as Google has recently demonstrated so well. If we look at where geomatics-trained “people” are employed today, I would wager that a majority of them are doing geomatics for companies or government agencies that would never identify themselves as geomatics companies or agencies. I think that we all should have been (and today should be) more focused on those thousands of geomatics “people” employed outside so-called “geomatics” firms. I would suggest that this would have given us a much better picture of the value of our field’s contributions to society than looking only to those companies (like mine) with geomatics or geospatial in their names. Does anyone want to argue that Google has not used geomatics to greatly influence how we look at our world? By not looking at this broader group we have devalued our contribution and have failed to bring into the geomatics community many who would like to be part of our community. Bringing such a disparate group together is one of the neat tricks of GoGeomatics.

Eighth: Death from too Many Economists and Not Enough Geographers

First, I am biased. I am a geographer – although at one time I would have admitted to being an economic geographer. This “missed opportunity” is in part related to the seventh missed opportunity. Economists like to measure economic activity. In my experience they also like to measure that which is easy to measure and that which they understand. This creates a double jeopardy. As implied in the preceding item, it seems that many studies of geomatics have failed to capture the broader impact of the field because they can’t easily get at the often isolated geomatics contributions to a wide range of companies and activities – they lack the required geographic perspective. How many studies done in Canada, for example, detail the use of geospatial information in banks and insurance companies? Has anyone done an analysis of how Canadian Tire and Home Hardware use the postal code information that they collect from us all – or done an assessment of the time and money saved in scouting out a Future Shop store that has what you want – or better, what was saved by buying something on-line? Not to my knowledge. Issues of privacy, proprietary information and the like make it difficult. But because something is difficult does not mean that it shouldn’t have been done. The problem is that the lack of a geographic perspective does make it impossible to truly understand our world and the events that are happening in it. The simple solution? We need more geographers and fewer economists!

One comment on "Missed Opportunities in Canadian Geomatics: Lessons for the Future?"

  1. Avatar Jeff Thurston says:

    Excellent. One of the best things I have read this year. Good work Bob.

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