Interview: Chris Bellman, Past President of Spatial Sciences Institute
Simon Greener interviewed Chris Bellman about the
professional membership in general, and specifically SSI, how it came
into being and what are some of the pros and cons of the resulting
"cross-pollination." They also discuss mentoring young professionals,
what it means to be a professional (vs.somebody just doing a job), and
(Side note: Chris Bellman was President of the Spatial Sciences
Institute (SSI) on the day Simon Greener interviewed him.The day after
he was past-president.The author swears that there is no correlation
between the two events!)
Simon Greener (SG): Chris, thanks for taking the time to being
interviewed by Directions Magazine.
Chris Bellman (CB): My pleasure.
(SG): I want to explore the question of falling membership of
professional bodies and what SSI is doing to address
this.But before we do this, we should revisit some of the SSI's
history for our non-Australian readers.URISA (the Urban and Regional
Information Systems Association) is a name that is familiar to North
American readers of Directions Magazine.AURISA (Australia-URISA) rings
certain bells, but now that AURISA is a part of the new SSI, can you
give us some history as to how SSI came about?
CB: In Australia there were five bodies that represented
different professional aspects of the spatial sciences.These were
AURISA, Mapping Sciences (cartographers), the Institute of Surveyors
(land and property), Engineering and Mining Surveyors, and Remote
Sensing and Photogrammetry.
It is true that, in the past, these professional bodies had little
interaction.But the development of cross-disciplinary geospatial
technologies has caused a convergence of these bodies and a change in
professional roles.This, coupled with their relatively small and
declining membership, saw a questioning of the individuality of these
At the same time, the formation of SSI took place as the Spatial
Information Action Agenda came into being.The Australian government
had come to realize that the spatial information industry was a major
sector driving the Australian economy at a national and state level.In
particular, geospatial data (particularly cadastral data) was a major
foundation of the economy.But it recognized that the industry was
fragmented.So, they wanted to have a single voice that could make the
case to government over all sorts of issues that might affect policy
SG: But aren't there three voices?
CB: Yes, there is the business voice, which has become
Australian Spatial Information Business Association (ASIBA).There is the academic, or
research voice, that has become the Cooperative Research Centre for
Spatial Information (CRC-SI).
And finally there is SSI, the professional voice.
We were bringing together five somewhat disparate organizations.So
there is still a challenge about how you are going to do that.There
was an obvious model: just have an umbrella organization and keep the
five organizations running.That was rejected by the group that
undertook a feasibility study, and the model that was accepted was one
where everyone is a member of the same organization, but within that
organization we have some specialist interest groups we call
commissions.Those commissions are all guaranteed a voice in the
governance of the organization.There is a position on the board for a
member of each of those commissions and this is reflected at the
national committee level and the regional committee level.But as an
administrative group, it runs as a single body.So this conference
[where the interview took place] is a conference of the SSI.It doesn't
have streams per se.
SG: Isn't this just the umbrella body by a different name?
CB: No, it is quite different.If you have the umbrella body
then you have an organization and the infrastructure running the
individual associations quite separately.Then another organization
over the top of that, representing the whole group, with another set of
infrastructure.So one of the drivers for the SSI structure is to get
rid of that duplication.These are all small bodies.They all have
their own processes, administration; all those sorts of things.So it
wasn't a very efficient model.
SG: But because it still has the commissions, then it still is an
umbrella body but what you have done is streamlined the administration
of that whole organization.
CB: Certainly that is one driver, the other is that the
commissions are transitory, and I think you will find over time that
the commissions will evolve.Commissions are in place to ensure that a
particular discipline's interests are not forgotten.But they don't
drive all the processes within the organization - it is driven by the
whole membership.And this conference is a really good example; there
is not a particular stream that is associated with a commission.What
we have is a whole range of sessions and paper themes, driven by
interests.There is something on spatial data infrastructure; something
on surveying; something on visualization; but these are not necessarily
commissions within the organization.
SG: Because things like visualization are cross-disciplinary.
CB: Exactly.As are lots of aspects of spatial data
SG: Yes, because it is a common framework.So, in any business the
enterprise database is common to all, therefore data management is of
common interest to all.Visualization of that data is done well when
done by cartographers, but that visualization is a service to all.
CB: So the model is around allowing specializations to still
have their place, but having, in computer-speak, a common architecture
sitting underneath.That's what we are trying to achieve, and in fact,
I believe, we are achieving.One of the signs of this is the breadth
and depth of the papers at this conference.If you actually study
what's in the program
you'll see a wide stream of papers but also some real depth in
particular specialist areas that are not necessarily
commission-aligned, but they do go quite deep.That wasn't possible
under the old associations; we would have had very narrow, but quite
SG: In a sense the conference gives real flesh and bones - though in a
narrow sense - to what my last report
on GITA called "extreme conferences." That people need to be challenged
and taken outside of their "comfort space" to learn how to operate in a
bigger, more integrated world.Being exposed to people outside your
discipline has the potential to make you more complete and more capable
of providing a specialist service.
CB: One of the problems that I am seeing at the moment, is this
whole idea of a profession.What is it? For a long time it was defined
by a narrow discipline framework.So, if you were a professional
surveyor you did this; if you were a professional cartographer you did
that; they were quite separate.Now I think that has changed.One of
the other things that concerns me is that a professional is supposed to
act in the client's and society's interest before their own.So if a
client comes to you and wants you to do something, and as a
professional you think there's a better way that involves perhaps not a
system or an approach that you can provide a solution for, that maybe
someone else can, there's an obligation for you to point that out to
the client.The narrow type associations that we had in the past did
not facilitate that sort of behavior.And that's changed with the
advent of the SSI.People are exposed to different ways of doing
things, to ways of thinking about problems, ways of addressing things.
Now whether they take those opportunities up, is their choice, but at
least they are being presented with them.
In some ways, this is occurring whether they like it or not.Whereas,
previously, it was pretty easy to avoid.Now, just by wandering around
these sorts of conferences, and these sorts of exhibitions, you start
to see things you wouldn't have seen before.The challenge for
professionals in that environment is then to make something out of it.
We are seeing some terrific ideas in the keynote speakers in the
conference so far.Three of them have looked at aspects of Web-enabled
technologies like Google.All three of them have highlighted different
aspects of that same technology and identified an opportunity to use
this, to exploit this: speculating on how it is going to change our
industry.And they have come up with three different ideas.Same
fundamental piece of technology (if you want to call Google
"technology" - I'm not sure I do); same basic IT infrastructure or IT
approach to things, and each of the speakers has picked on something
different that they see as either an opportunity or a way that might
change the spatial industry.I think that's fantastic.
SG: I agree with you.I found that the value for me, for once,
wasn't the opportunity to network, but to hear those ideas because I
did actually learn something from each one.I found that very valuable.
CB: Well, I support that whole-heartedly.I have been at other
conferences run by the SSI where I have gone to listen to papers quite
outside my sphere of interest and certainly outside my knowledge base,
but most of them I have found really interesting.And often I have seen
something that I could use, not necessarily something specific, but
maybe a way of thinking, an approach to a problem that I might be able
to use in a different context, but for some problem I face.I am not
going to buy a Total Station for my work, but I might look at the way
someone tackled a particular measurement problem, and the way they
thought about it, and say that, "I just might use that, in a problem
that I face".
SG: Let's actually focus on the individual professional in relation to
the SSI because that is the area I am particularly interested in.
Having been a GIS manager, and supervised students at university as
well, the big question they all come to me about is what professional
body they should join.The SSI conference is very professionally run,
it's "ritzy", it's expensive, and the reason why most people attend is
because somebody else pays for their ticket.Agreed?
SG: But isn't the "value question" that the individual student asks -
that we all ask (the "What's in it for me?" question) - one that is
seen in terms of what do I actually have to give out of my pocket to be
a member? This is a "hearts and minds" question that the individual
member who could not afford to come to this conference must be asking
themselves.Because falling membership is a problem for almost all
professional bodies, do you really think that SSI is going to attract
CB: The SSI has attracted 600 new members who were not
previously members of any other association! These are not members who
have come to us from the founding associations; they have come into the
SSI as new members, not having been involved in anything else.We have
done this in a number of ways.We have gone out to the student
marketplace with a student membership that is ridiculously low (well
below cost) and we have industry sponsorship to at least balance the
budget.So you can be a member for $22.You will see a number of those
students running around this conference as volunteers.We actually
hosted some of those students at the awards dinner last night.They
were absolutely "blown away" by the strength and diversity of the
industry.They take that message back to their student bodies; the
informal network gets going, and they talk the industry up amongst the
existing undergraduate community at university; not as a job, but as a
profession.And this is something that we have to keep in mind.If you
want to treat this as a job, that's a whole different thing; but if you
want to see it as a profession then there has to be something that
identifies it as a profession.And one aspect of that is a professional
body that both maintains standards and also represents the members'
interests and provides the members with services that further their
SG: This is the value-add litmus test of "what's in it for me?"
SG: So it's an issue of offering services that help them understand
their careers.Careers that are often a series of serendipitous (or
CB: Nowadays that is quite true.
SG: Professionals often end up in jobs because the week they checked
the paper only certain jobs were on offer.For example, at this
conference there is a marketing graduate fresh from university who now
works for a company providing geospatial products and services.I asked
her if she ever expected that this is where she might end up and, of
course, the answer was "No." Once this initial decision occurs, a set
of skills, talents, opportunities and ways of looking at things come
from it which then drives the decision making process of where they go
SG: At the same time, others don't end up in a dead-end job.They
seek advice from their professional body on ways of getting out of the
situation they find themselves in.Should they enroll in another
degree, graduate diploma etc? This isn't working for me; should they be
able to get that advice from a professional body.
CB: I think one of the areas we are looking at, at the moment,
is exactly that issue of professional development for younger members;
people who are trying to found their careers.There is a whole range of
issues about building the right skill base, getting the networks,
understanding the profession more deeply.However, you can't make
decisions for people.
What you can do is provide them with information; it's slightly more
dangerous to provide them with advice, unless they specifically ask for
it.But you can point out the common pitfalls.There was a good example
of this the other night at a ceremony I was at.Someone who was quite
successful in the profession got up and spoke to a whole group of young
people and said, "Don't worry about money.At this stage of your
career, worry about getting a job in which you will learn something;
that will develop you in a technical, personal and professional sense,
and everything will flow from that."
You build a plank and eventually something happens from that.You might
not be able to control the timing but if you don't build that platform
in the first place, then when that serendipitous event like the
successful person speaking to the group of young people comes along,
you may not be ready for it.And then it is a missed opportunity.
Sometimes there are catastrophic events, such as redundancy, and,
again, you can't control those.But if you have built that platform,
you are in a much better position to respond.
SG: Yes.I have had situations where I provided advice to someone
who chose to ignore it and is ruing that decision.But when that person
comes back, I won't say, "I told you so." Rather I'll say, "what can we
do now?" Mentoring is a catchword for what an older professional can do
for a younger one in this situation.
CB: Yes, mentoring is something that has been on the SSI agenda
since inception.We still haven't got it right in that we don't have
formal processes for it and we are trying to develop some.That is a
very challenging thing to do because it requires the cooperation of
both the mentor and the mentee.You do need some sort of program, to
engage both sides of it.What we have at the moment are some
self-selected people, some of the key young professional people in the
organization, who are no doubt being mentored by senior people in the
profession.But that is because those young professionals have stepped
forward and engaged themselves with the organization.They are getting
mentoring almost by default or by osmosis..
We have been talking about a process for quite a while now.We have
been trying to develop a trial which has faltered only because there
have been so many other things on the agenda, not from any lack of will
or desire.Our idea is to align young people with senior members of
their profession, but outside their immediate work place.I think there
is already a responsibility on employers to mentor their young staff,
but it is always useful to get a perspective from the outside.What we
want is a mentoring arrangement that is relatively informal, might run
for a period of 12 months, and might constitute one meeting a month
over coffee.But with enough of a disconnect between mentor and mentee
so that the advice being given is fairly objective.
There is another thing that I think comes out of this and that is what
the mentor gets out of the relationship because it is not a one way
SG: Having not been a member of many professional bodies, this is good
news, for it is this sort of vision that will attract even older people
like myself.I do hope the SSI keeps aiming for this goal.
CB: In my opening address at the conference, I made a small point
about the formation of the SSI and what the dream was; what the promise
was; and how this conference delivers on that promise (and I think it
SG: To finish, I observe that one of the key "what's in it for me"
benefits of professional bodies is to be able to hand out a business
card that says "John Doe, MSSI" (e.g.Member of the SSI).For members
of some of the older professional associations, this was a part of what
they offered.It has a certain "iconic" value to it.Do you see any
value in having an "MSSI"?
CB: Absolutely.Certification is something that has not been
available to professionals outside of the surveying profession.The LS
certification process was based around having a certain level of
professional standing, practical training, educational qualifications,
etc., which enabled you to be registered.SSI is not like that.Anyone
who pays the membership fee can join the SSI.So being a member of the
SSI is not quite as prestigious in the professional sense.
Where the prestige, and another answer to the value-question comes
from, is being certified as a professional.We have two levels: one is
that you are just a certified professional.That you have the right
education and experience to be considered a professional member of the
SG: So, do you have a three letter acronym for that?
CB: That's Certified Professional.
CB: Yes.And then we have a specialization category.This is
similar to the professional certification that URISA has (the GIS Certification Institute), which
is GIS Professional.We are modeling some of our work on exactly that.
For the first time anyone who practices in the spatial profession in
this country will have a mechanism to be certified as a specialist in a
particular domain, e.g.remote sensing, photogrammetry.And I think
that, from a business perspective, to have on your business card that
you are, for example, a certified professional photogrammetrist, is a
great benefit.If I am a client, I am now feeling a lot more
comfortable in talking to.
SG: And that, as an outside observer, is the thing that will start
to get that buy-in, that "what's in it for me", which will engage
people who will then want to give back via mechanisms like mentoring:
for most young people do really want to give back what they have
received.To be involved.To contribute to everyone else.How far away
are we from that, Chris?
CB: We hope to be able to announce soon that we have an agreement
with URISA to use their GIS professional certification framework for
our spatial information professional certification.That will also be a
prototype for a number of the individual specializations.Though some
professions, like Land Surveying, will always be a bit different,
because there are other (statutory) bodies that certify their
professional services.So it is all about engagement with your
profession.And to be able to demonstrate that engagement through
qualifications, through further training, through continuing
professional development, through service.All things that indicate
that you are someone who is not only competent but someone who values
the profession as a valuable community body rather than just as someone
who does a job.
SG: That is a nice way to finish this interview, because it restates
the opening theme: the question of what the SSI is doing to become a
professional body that will attract membership.And for that, I thank
you on behalf of our readers, for taking the time to talk to us.