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More Than Just a Name: What The Geomatics Industry Needs to Reach The Public

There has been much written about ‘geo’ terms, and the awareness of them,  in Canada recently.  Jonathan Murphy of GoGeomatics recently summed up many of the age old debates, issues and perceptions in his article ‘Why Using the Word Geomatics Sucks in Canada‘.  He hits on many of the key points in his summary.

confustionThe term is not likely the issue. It does not matter what term is used. It would still be unknown. Therefore, the real issue relates to the lack of awareness. While professionals and those familiar with spatial data know many of the terms, the public does not – nor do industry and governments, fully.

In the case of Canada, geomatics has a strong relationship to land surveying. That in turn is not unexpected for a country oriented toward natural resources. That people know about land surveying, but not geomatics, relates to the fact that land surveys are needed by people during land transactions – buying and selling. That is the the public-contact-point.

Again, in the case of Canada, the administration of spatial information services, policies and initiatives lies directly in the Department of Natural Resources (NRCan).   The natural resource connection as mentioned above, is thus aligned for a reason. But keep in mind that provinces have considerable impact on natural resources and other uses of spatial data.

Nationally, the use and application of spatial data and services has evolved well beyond the primary natural resource based economy. Today, spatial data is used throughout the economy,  across ministries and transcends institutional boundaries as well.

In the book Economic Geography: A Contemporary Introductionauthors  Neil Coe, Philip Kelly and Henry W. C. Yeung talk about the relationship of economy to geography. They eloquently describe the connections that often seem hidden, unmentioned and unfamiliar. In fact, geography and economy weave together in many powerful ways.

The key point to this blog post relates to the fact that the geography industry in Canada is disconnected or misaligned from the real power of economy.

So what needs to happen?  More awareness at the public level – nationally. Just as land and home buyers need survey certificates, the link for spatial data to other sectors of the economy needs to be further exposed and articulated.  Water quality needs spatial data. Agriculture needs spatial data. Aviation uses spatial data. Infrastructure depends on spatial data. You get the point…

On daily terms and living, spatial data is everywhere. But the part that is missing is that it has not been articulated and described to people.  My guess is that most cities in Canada use a GIS, yet most people in those cities have no idea why it helps their city.  My guess is that most rural areas have large quantities of aerial and satellite imagery available, yet, the value of that information and how it is being used remains in professional vaults of expertise.  How is it that people know that lasers are used to calculate their speed on highways, and contribute to tickets, yet, have no idea the same technology builds maps and supports car navigation?

People like to say, “the public does not want professional details!” Lately, burying the useful knowledge awareness into simplistic terms that avoid the chance to gain economic advantage could serve a purpose – if people grasped even small percentages of awareness.

billboardIf you want people to think, and not just click through daily decision making, then it would seem that one of the goals ought to be to raise awareness and understanding. After all, isn’t that what the industry has been saying all along “it improves understanding?”

At this point, NRCan (and other governments) ought to have a national campaign that advertises the industrial, societal and business impacts of spatial information.  Something that connects the dots between them, and which explains and describes in simple terms.

Signs, banners and ads in airport lounges, rail stations and government facilities along with businesses, would go a long way to breaking down barriers, educating the public and even opening the door for them to participate. If we aim to have geomatics underpin society, then we need to stop talking to ourselves and talk to the people who use it to make their daily lives better.

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