GeoCommunity 2009 - Where the Geography Community Meets

By Steve Feldman

Many of us working in the UK Geographic Information (GI) industry would accept that the United States is where things start. After all, most of the major influences on technology and trends come from the States. Well, at least the software vendors are all U.S.-based as are the lynchpins of neogeography, the GYM (Google, Yahoo, MapQuest) club. But perhaps in the area of community and conferences, the UK is leading the way in forging a vibrant conference model that brings together all the elements that make up the GeoCommunity.

GeoCommunity is the annual conference (Sept. 22-24) of the AGI (Association for Geographic Information), the UK's principal membership organization for individuals, companies and government working with GI. Now in its third year, GeoCommunity is a residential conference (a conference where people stay in the conference hotel so that they are wrapped in conference activity and fervor), which replaced the conference and exhibition format the AGI had successfully run for many years. Delegates and sponsors felt that the old model was becoming stale, and the size and cost of central London venues for the event had become a limiting factor.

The first GeoCommunity event, held in Stratford upon Avon in 2007, had the theme "Building a GeoCommunity" and a subtext was to try to understand what a GeoCommunity might look like and who would want to be part of it. Well, the answer was that over 500 delegates turned up for two days of presentations, debates, training and networking. They were practitioners, policy makers, vendors and consultants, academics and students. It looked as if we had gotten something right! One of the topics that drew a lot of interest was how traditional GI people were responding to neogeography. Looking back on those discussions it is clear that a couple of years ago there was a gap and more than a little misunderstanding between the paleo (I think this term may have been first coined at this conference) and the neo geographers.

Here are a couple of quotes from visitors to last year's GeoCommunity:
Geoff Zeiss of Autodesk
"...made this conference one of the most interesting I have been to in the last year..."
Jeff Thurston
"I think the GeoCommunity reached the point this year where it realizes that reference to the paleo or the neogeography community is passe, that it hinders the forward momentum that seeks to integrate the traditional GI with what was previously called neogeography and move the whole issue forward one more step. I think AGI made a big leap. A leap that others in the world have yet to discuss and think on - as much. Not perfect, nor finished. But a real good start."
A year on and we are now in the final stages of planning for GeoCommunity '09. The conference is growing and hopes to maintain or increase the attendance from the 600 of last year; current registrations are above last year in spite of the economic circumstances that many delegates and their employers are facing.

This year we have an outstanding selection of plenary speakers who represent the diversity of the GeoCommunity, from traditional through neogeography to the next generation of geographers who are still at school. Andrew Turner, an originator of neogeography and CTO of FortiusOne, and Peter Batty, former CTO of SmallWorld and Intergraph, will open the conference. To finish the conference, there will be a truly stunning presentation from the teachers and pupils of the Grammar School at Leeds on the way GI is integrated into the whole school curriculum, which will impress and may surprise many professionals.

The delegates at GeoCommunity will have some difficult choices to make between more than 80 options across seven streams of presentations, interactive sessions and hands-on workshops. The implementation of INSPIRE and national and regional SDIs will be the main interest for some of our delegates whilst for others the new GeoWeb (i.e. all that is "neogeo" and goes on in a browser) stream will provide an opportunity to learn how neogeography is changing the ways we use, present and share information. In the Local Communities stream presentations range from crime reduction to the evolution of place names. There are streams on Visualization, the Environment, Making the Case and GeoServices (GIS in the cloud) and a stream entitled All About Data with some very thought provoking presentations. Privacy is becoming a subject of increasing concern for some whilst others are more focused on the benefits of pervasive location; the GeoCommunity will have the chance to join in a discussion on location and privacy with a group of experts.

On the day before the conference there are a variety of activities for the early arrivers including an Oracle Spatial users group, a geocaching event and possibly some OpenStreetMapping, plus a comic poet and a geoquiz in the evening.

This year we are also starting the GeoCommunity's equivalent of Britain's famous Speakers' Corner. The GeoCommunity Soapbox gives delegates and presenters a five-minute slot to pitch a product, rant about their favorite subject or go way off topic. But they have to do it to 15 slides that will be auto advancing every 20 seconds and with digital tomatoes being hurled at them by the audience. Fueled with cold beers, it promises to be a fun finish to the first day.

So what makes this conference special? Some attendees have described the event as the UK equivalent of GITA and Where 2.0 combined. I am not sure about that as I have yet to get to Where 2.0. I think the wide range of people with different interests and jobs coming together for two or three days to listen, learn from each other, debate and enjoy geography is almost unique. But to be honest I am a little biased as I have chaired the event for the last three years; you will have to come along and decide for yourself.

Published Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Written by Steve Feldman

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