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Thinking about GIS or Whatever Happened to the Geography Teacher

(This title borrows from Tomlinson’s book of the same name, as well as a new book by Donald Savoie ‘ Whatever happened to the music teacher’).

It is fifty years since Roger Tomlinson used the term ‘geographic information systems’ in response to a need by the federal government, expressed by Lee Pratt at the Canada Land Inventory.

It is only a few weeks since Donald Savoie published an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail (January 7/13) entitled ‘Running government like a business has been a dismal failure‘. Related to that article, Savoie mentions his new book, “Whatever happened to the music teacher? How governments decide and why’ It will be published in March 2013.

I am using these two sources to frame my questions:

  1. What is the current status of GIS in Canada?
  2. What type of leadership is needed to help Canada be at the forefront in this field?

Tomlinson talks about the ‘three legs of the stool of future development: technology, people and data’. How has the technology changed? Is the technology of GIS readily available to Canadian citizens? What is the status of web or mobile GIS applications? How are we doing in the training of the next generation of GIS developers or users? Or we can paraphrase Savoie: ‘whatever happened to the Geography teacher?’

The reader will need to check out Savoie’s writing to obtain a full understanding of the question.

Finally, how are we doing in terms of open geographic information? Is government data (federal, provincial) readily available at the municipal level or to non-government organizations or to the citizens?

In Nova Scotia, I have raised these questions with civil servants, largely, in the context of open geography and the concept of a community information utility (CIU). Paul Beach at the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre made several presentations in Nova Scotia on this topic. It describes collaboration between government agencies, business and the community.

My position can be inferred from a couple of opinion pieces to the Chronicle Herald and the Annapolis Spectator here.

Given the concerns expressed by Savoie about the relationship between government and business, can we imagine, fifty years later a young innovator (Roger was under thirty at the time) receiving a positive reception from a likely similar youthful Lee Pratt ?

James Boxall, my colleague at Dalhousie University, has written in a previous GoGeomatics Canada article about the need for a ‘moonshot’. I would argue rather, that we need to support the grassroots. Canada today (fifty years later) remains a resource rich country, with a large geography, low population density and a diverse set of groups with legitimate land claims and a remarkable appreciation of the diverse landscape. The opportunity remains today because of our geography.

To my mind, we must see citizen groups have access to GIS, access to digital maps. The educational institutions need to encourage students to work on questions of public participatory GIS. There are pockets of activity across this large country. We need to support a network between the nodes, including local industry and government.

If Canadians can create innovative solutions that allow these different groups to share their understanding of the landscape, then I believe there is room for optimism. These technologies remain relevant today, just as GIS and Remote Sensing technologies were relevant in the 1960’s.


The Geography of Canada means that with climate change and other global economic and social forces, Canadian innovators will be required to face significant challenges. Leadership will not come from a single source but by collaboration between citizen groups, educational institutions, business and the government agencies. It must be a much more open and inclusive environment than being described by Savoie.

Collectively, we must answer the question ‘ whatever happened to the Geography teacher?’


Savoie, Donald 2013. Running government like a business has been a dismal failure. Globe and Mail. January 7.

Savoie, Donald, 2013. Whatever happened to the music teacher. How governments decide and why. To be published March. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Tomlinson, Roger. 2007. Thinking about GIS. Third edition. Esri Press.

9 comments on "Thinking about GIS or Whatever Happened to the Geography Teacher"

  1. Darren Platakis says:

    Great article Robert!

  2. Clark Beattie says:

    The main issue, as it’s always been and probably always will be, is not the technology nor its application, it’s simply human nature to share only when there is some potential for both parties to benefit. Making data available and opening systems to access information doesn’t guarantee that anyone will take advantage. I agree that understanding what it means to follow a geographic approach will make it easier do deal with some issues but as long as we have serveral levels of government and competing political interests there will be significnant hurdles to overcome.

  3. Edward Wedler says:

    With the advent of crowd-sourcing, social media, real-time mobile data gathering, and sharing such as Flickr, my guess is that democratizing data is already starting to happen — take Twitter mapping for example (http://mashable.com/2010/08/06/twitter-mapping-tools/) as in the OpenFile Montreal project (http://bit.ly/XBHysp).

    In 10 years time perhaps your title will read “… what ever happened to the Government Databases?”

  4. Tim Easley says:

    Great article!! Good questions we should all be thinking about. Savoie is a great NB thinker and should be listened to. Another good thoughtful piece Robert!!

  5. Blain Martin says:

    Thank you for the article that starts to address your two questions about GIS and Leadership and puts those questions in the context of the Geography teacher. One of the prime drivers in my profession and in many others is demographics. The Association of Ontario Land Surveyors (AOLS) has particularly discouraging demographics; 72% of the members are over 50 years old, 31% are over 60 and a paltry 5% are under 40. We are trying to attract new members on multiple fronts but so far the results have not been particularly encouraging.

    It is interesting that Land Surveying combined with Geographic Information Systems provide a great career choice for young people. It is fun to work on the huge variety of projects available and the financial rewards can be substantial. With that in mind, I am still optimistic that younger people will see this as we get the word out to them. Articles like yours help!

    One of our activities is helping develop the curriculum for the Geography teachers that you mention. Nigel Day, Chair of the Geomatics Recruitment & Liaison Committee has done some great work with the Provincial Government in this regard.

    We are working closely with the Universities and Colleges in Ontario that offer Geomatics programs. We are also developing our own distance learning modules. Izaak de Rijcke, one of our members gave a presentation on distance learning at the New Brunswick Land Surveyors Annual General Meeting just a couple of days ago and from what I have heard, it was very well received both by their members and by the Educational Institutions that participated.

    One final note is that the AOLS has created a company call the Ontario Digital Cadastral Company (ODCC) and their vision is to use the survey data that is held by Land Surveyors to create an accurate digital cadastral database across Ontario.

    1. Robert Maher says:


      I have always enjoyed working at COGS with my colleagues from the Surveying profession.
      While I accept the label of ‘Gegrapher’, my primary purpose in the article
      was to challenge the role of government, hence the reference to Savoie.
      Replacing music teacher with geography teacher.

  6. Bob Maher says:

    From the Hill Times online, 21/01/13

    “The title of Professor Savoie’s latest book comes from a conversation he had with a prominent businessman and Nova Sctia Premier Darrell Dexter. The businessman recounted that when he grew up in Cumberland County, NS the school he went to had a music teacher, and in town there was a small Department of Natural Resources office with two public servants in it. Now the department is housed in two buildings and has a staff of 150 while the local school can’t afford a music teacher,

    In his book, Professor Savoie addresses the paradox of disappearing front line workers and expanding bureaucracy.”

  7. Susan Campo says:

    I agree. As a secondary school geography teacher, I feel that Geography as a discipline is no longer valued by government or society. Our physical geography curriculum is increasingly farmed out to Science (climate change, ecosystems, weather) and the human geography is becoming centred around economics and resources. There are learning expectations that students will use geotechnologies, but little is provided in the way of training to teachers. Considering that location-based services are ubiquitous in cell phones and these data are then shared through social media, very few people how important geography is in their daily lives.

    I am curious about this quote:

    “To my mind, we must see citizen groups have access to GIS, access to digital maps. The educational institutions need to encourage students to work on questions of public participatory GIS.”

    Can you give me examples of this? The only thing I can think of is Wikimapia and
    OpenStreetMap. Is this what you meant?

    1. Robert Maher says:


      At the university level, there are several initiatives. Jon Corbett at UBC Okanagan, Rene Sieber at MacGill, David Carruthers at PLANlab and also the work out of the Geomatics Lab at Carleton being applied in Nunavut. There are likely others at the community college and community level too.
      It seems that a recent URISA publication had papers by both Jon and Rene.
      Hope that helps.

Comments are closed.

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