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GeoAtlantic 2012: The State of GIS in the Canadian Maritimes

Thursday, June 21st 2012
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Summary:

Geomatics Atlantic is the current name of the conference hosted in the Maritimes for the past 25 years. Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg compares the issues facing our peers to the north in 2012 with those here in the states.

Geomatics Atlantic is the current name of the conference hosted in the Maritimes for the past 25 years. I was invited to speak at the event held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, June 12-14, 2012 and to help celebrate another 25th anniversary, that of the Centre of Geographic Sciences, better known as COGS, based not far away in the Annapolis Valley.

I consider Geomatics Atlantic a regional event, though clearly Nova Scotia and Halifax were especially well-represented at Halifax’s own St. Mary’s University (SMU). Attendees numbered about 120, with additional guests appearing Wednesday night to attend the COGS anniversary party. I was told that in years past Geomatics Atlantic had been significantly larger. I suspect that could be said of many non-vendor GIS and geo-related events in all of North America in the last five or so years.

I was listening carefully to identify differences in the state of GIS between my region of New England and the Maritimes. Many of the issues are the same, including challenges (1) in making geo organizations and events successful both in terms of attendance, value and budget, (2) related to utilities sharing data, (3) in educating enough geospatial practitioners, and (4) in keeping up with changes in technology.

The one big difference I felt was simply the pull of COGS. Many attendees were graduates, soon to be graduates or future attendees, and many companies bragged about their recent COGS hires during their presentations. One presenter, a recent COGS student (last week!), already had a job. We have many fine institutions in the U.S. that teach geographic technology and related specialties, but we have nothing with the focus and reputation of COGS. I like to imagine having such an institution, but I’m not sure it would get off the ground in these challenging economic times.

Presentation Highlights

Dr. David Coleman of the University of New Brunswick detailed the history of Geomatics Atlantic, which grew from 10 workshops in the 1990s addressing gaps in communications between users in different departments and geographies. Those workshops focused on what the future would look like and how to get there.

The meetings had strict rules:

  • short presentations, no slides, no notes (so no approval was needed from higher ups)
  • half of each workshop was group discussion
  • collected, group-defined resolutions were sent to the Premier of the Province

Geomatics Atlantic expanded on the workshops by creating conferences with outside guests including educators and raising the level of the conversation. Conferences had exhibit halls for vendors and moved from city to city across the region instead of staying put year to year.

Coleman left us with questions:

  • Do we still need events like this?
  • Do we have other ways of exchanging information?
  • Do we need to discuss new topics and create new methods of coming together?
  • What do we want to do next?
  • Do we want to predict the future or invent it?

Dr. Robert Fournier, of Dalhousie University and the well-known Canadian Broadcast Corporation (Canada’s public broadcaster on TV and radio) science discussant, discussed climate change in the context of oceanography and the human element. He enhanced a broad look at the issues by bringing the issue home to the Maritimes.

Halifax Regional Police Deputy Chief Bill Moore addressed the state of public safety and its use of data in general, and geodata in particular.  He cited Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG) as a key organization dedicated to interoperability. He noted how in the U.S. a small bit (24 mhz) of the 700 mhz spectrum, freed up by the switch to digital television, was dedicated to public safety communications use. Canada wants to do the same thing. Right now public safety has 10 mhz and is aiming to capture a total of 20 mhz for a national and international public safety broadband system. Currently, Canadian public safety personnel use commercial spectrum, meaning, as Moore put it, emergency responders are competing with teenagers for spectrum! He closed with a video that sparked giggles and wows about what the future of interoperability (and many familiar technologies including augmented reality) might look like. It’s from U.S. Homeland Security.

His parting conclusions and suggestions to us as practitioners:

  • tech change is not slowing
  • be wary of “snake oil salesmen”
  • tech should support people, not the other way around
  • a picture is worth a thousand words

Allison Ambli, a librarian, shared an effort to engage the public with documents and locations related to Halifax’s connection to the sinking of the Titanic. Her team built a Google map (My Map), a list on Foursquare and Layar (augmented reality) implementation. The program, a pilot and learning opportunity, yielded some engagement data.

  • Google Map: 62,569 views
  • Foursquare list: 74 friends, 21 saved the list
  • Layar: could not measure

Gerard Eddy and Warren Dobson described their inquiry-based learning module that used a project about gold prospecting to teach a variety of skills related to geospatial technology (and other areas) to junior high students.

It’s based on what’s called “Inquiry-based Learning,” which includes:

  • authentic learning experience (real things that matter)
  • open-ended question
  • in-depth learning with multiple outcomes
  • collaborative work and a common goal
  • student choice enabling student empowerment, which in turn increases engagement
  • 21st century skills - problem solving, communications and collaboration

The module, which students selected from a handful of offerings, ran during the second half of the school day for several months. Students met a few times a week. Students used compasses, topographic maps and paper thematic maps. They measured paces, sought out and used QR codes, went into the field, used survey equipment, laid claims out on the football field, used QGIS and other GIS tools, and took a field trip to explore geology and pan for gold. The big question: “Is mining worth it?”

The next step for the module developers is to explore scaling the activity to other schools, adjusting it for upper grade and lower grade students.

My Favorite Part

What impressed me most about this event were the students. I met two current second year geography students at SMU who seemed wise beyond their years. After getting a glimpse of geotechnology in high school, they both looked at the COGS post-high school program. After doing some homework on it, they both decided to first get a four-year degree and then try to get into COGS’ post baccalaureate program. I feel pretty sure these two gentlemen will not only get into COGS once they finish their degrees, but become alums who get great jobs in government or private industry.

Steve AuCoin and James Thompson (among the COGS grads featured in this Grad Profile booklet [pdf]), detailed their work on a Direct Georeferencing Airborne Thermal Camera System. Other aspects of the hardware/software package were done by previous students but these two put the pieces together and “MacGyvered” the sensor to work.

Burns Foster, a recipient of a small ($750) scholarship back in the day, told of his schooling, first job and travel, complete with pictures of him tackling geotasks all over the world. When he was ready to settle down, as he put it, he knocked on the door of local geo company, CARIS. After three interviews he got a job there and subsequently earned more responsibilities. I asked if it was really that easy to get the job and why it required three interviews. There was no sense of conceit in his response that no, it was not hard; he had the technical background and the experience to do the work. The three interviews were more about finding what he wanted to do than evaluating his skill set. If you met this fellow you’d know why CARIS (or your organization) would be happy to have him.

My Takeaways

The Maritimes are facing many of the same issues we face in geospatial technology in New England and the rest of the United States.

The best presenters hook the audience at the beginning by making it clear why the topic is relevant. They keep you engaged with questions, interaction and humor. They wrap up by highlighting the key ideas they hope you will take with you. I saw several examples of just this strategy.

A focused geospatial educational institution like COGS can push students to excel, find jobs in all sectors, and further enhance the school’s reputation. Graduates are fiercely loyal and spread both word of the school and the profession as they pursue their careers.

Small regional events allow conversations to continue over the few days of the event because it’s possible to interact with the same individuals more than once.

Disclosure: GeoAtlantic covered my travel and lodging for this event.


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