Interview: Chris Bellman, Past President of Spatial Sciences Institute

By Simon Greener

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 certification.

(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 bodies.

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 and infrastructure.

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 infrastructure.

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 deep, sessions.

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.

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?

CB: No.

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 new members?

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 professional careers.

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 otherwise) events.

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 next.

CB: Yes

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 street.

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.

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 does).

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"?

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 SSI.

SG: So, do you have a three letter acronym for that?

That's Certified Professional.


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?

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.

Thank you.

Published Saturday, October 15th, 2005

Written by Simon Greener

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