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:
- What is the current status of GIS in Canada?
- 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.
Tomlinson, Roger. 2007. Thinking about GIS. Third edition. Esri Press.