Letter from the Low Lands: Geo-information for the Next Generation?

By Jan Willem van Eck

My college alma mater recently celebrated its 100th birthday. During a special event at the (engineering) Institute of the Built Environment in at the University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht, I presented a few thoughts and suggestions on how to go forward with geo-information and education. But you can’t look forward without first looking back. It often gives you valuable insights about what has changed and what might be ahead.
New geo generation

While I did not want to be "Talkin' 'bout my generation" at this event, I did make the remark that it certainly seems much easier to agree on what is old than it is to define what is new. Just "Googling" at Flickr brought up a few intriguing pictures of surveying crews from the previous century. They were clearly the older generation, there was no discussion about that. But what is new to an audience is very dependent on their own perspective, experience and sometimes beliefs.

To avoid any discussion of neogeography (I am not a fan), for the purpose of this discussion the "new generations" are all the new alumni, from this moment onwards.

Knowledge and geo-information
When you step back 100 years and look at the current time and age, a lot of things have changed. Here’s one example: 100 years ago there were just a few libraries that made knowledge accessible to the first 40 students at the institute. Now the Internet has changed the whole country into one big library. I’d argue that engineering then was much more focused on "how things work" and only much later on "how you can use it." That move has had a big impact on the way we handle knowledge, so knowledge and knowledge management have gained importance over the years.

The quantity, distribution, applicability and "due date" (freshness) of knowledge have undergone many changes, too.  The same thing applies to geographic information. When we know more about geography and geodesy, we are able to distribute geographic information in a much different way, and geographic information then becomes valuable for many more application areas.

What we need for new generations
Engineering can be defined as "knowledge applied to society’s problems." Both knowledge and society have changed tremendously. A first-time driver test gets you a license. It doesn’t make you a good driver. A college degree will by no means suffice for an entire lifetime to support the understanding of this blossoming knowledge society. Lifelong learning has become inevitable and necessary.

What we need in education is a formal certification program for geo professionals in the Netherlands. Nothing new to other countries, but I see a task for the colleges here. And in this certification process we should use all modern learning tools currently available. All information to get certified should be publicly available. After all, the diffusion of knowledge is a top priority of any school. That has not changed for the last 100 years.

Congratulations to the college. What started with 40 freshmen in 1910 has evolved to 1,600 students per year now, 10% of whom are studying geodesy/geo-information.

Published Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Written by Jan Willem van Eck

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