The GIS&T BoK: Where is it now, and where will YOU take it tomorrow?

July 12, 2017

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It’s human nature to strive for order and structure around information. We make lists. We design and populate taxonomies. We produce charts, figures, and tables. We rely on alphabets and chronologies to place knowledge into a sequenced order. In the absence of structures that allow us to organize our knowledge, we would overly tax our cognitive abilities to remember and to reason.

The process of organizing and defining disciplinary knowledge has led some professions to create their own “bodies of knowledge,” so that a common understanding exists of what topics pertain to that profession, at least at that point in time. Typically, the members of the professional community are involved in deciding both on the topics and how they are defined, individually and in relationship to one another. Sometimes order is imposed on the knowledge, such as arranging the information thematically, but the information may also be presented in a more arbitrary manner, such as an alphabetical list. The Association of Physical Plant Administrators, the American Health Information Management Association, and the Chartered Financial Analysts are examples of professions that publish their respective bodies of knowledge for the benefit of their community. In each case, the professional societies associated with each of these areas has taken on the responsibility for maintaining, updating, and disseminating these collections.

Our profession has one too: The Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge. It was first published in 2006 as a paperback book (pdf version available here), with 329 individual topics grouped into 10 different knowledge areas. Each topic was comprised only of its title and an unordered, bulleted list of learning objectives that suggested what a person knowledgeable about that topic ought to be able to do. For instance, for the topic “Hierarchical Data Models,” the learning objectives include illustrating a quadtree model and describing its pros and cons for use in geographic database representation and modeling, among others. 

The steward of the GIS&T Body of Knowledge is the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, the non-profit organization that was established in the mid-1990s to support scholarly communities and networks around GIS&T research and education. In his role as then-chair of UCGIS’s Education Committee, David DiBiase became the managing editor of the BoK’s first edition and he and his fellow editors shepherded the project through to its initial publication (by the Association of American Geographers). While these individuals may receive the editorial credits on the front cover, they are all quick to point out that their involvement was preceded by a multi-year effort involving many dozens of people serving formally on task forces and advisory boards, and less formally as reviewers and commenters.

Importantly, the GIS&T BoK itself was to be just one component of a proposed model curricula for GIS&T that could be sequenced to align with both workforce and disciplinary needs.  Between 1988 and 2005, several such initiatives were launched; a detailed history of these is available in the original BoK publication. Though no one curriculum has become a standard or widely adopted, each design and thought process informed how we described and measured the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful in these emerging jobs. There was a simultaneous need for ancillary end users and core developers, and this makes for a complex educational situation. Some only wanted to install an existing software package and be taught how to do a task; meanwhile, others were preparing people to design the programs and applications that barely existed to execute algorithms that had not been formulated. A geographic information “science” was developing right alongside the geographic information “systems” that it supported.

Where is the GIS&T BoK today?  The initial 2006 publication was an essential document to produce and make available at that time, but its authors knew that it was neither fully comprehensive nor complete. Plus, there were only aspirational ideas for how it would be expanded and updated. All of that is now changing. In 2016, a decade after its original paper-bound publication, UCGIS published an online digital version that could more readily be searched, sorted, and cited. With this production, a wholly different approach to authorship was selected that would help individual contributors gain scholarly recognition for their work, and be a more sustainable model for updates and revisions.

The new digital version is often referred to as the BoK 2.0, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s simply the full digital version of the GIS&T BoK. When it went online in June 2016, it contained exactly and only the same 329 topics and associated learning objectives – under the same 10 knowledge areas – that had been published the decade earlier. But right away, a new editorial team began to add new topics, revise existing ones, and replace some knowledge areas with new ones, all in an expanded format. Topics now contain an expanded description that may seem suggestive of a brief encyclopedia entry, but there is still a dedicated focus on teaching and learning. Each contains new or updated learning objectives as well as instructional assessment questions that would aid both an instructor and student. Each topic is authored by one or more individuals with expertise in that subject area, and their entries undergo external peer review. Once each is published, it has its own permanent URL and digital object identifier, a way to track usage and citations. Authors may make minor updates at any time, turning this into a living document that reflects the dynamic and rapidly evolving nature of this discipline. But four times each year the whole BoK is archived, so that when a topic is updated or modified, its earlier versions can also be accessed and cited.  Some of the newly published topics include: Computational Movement Analysis (from the Analytics & Modeling Knowledge Area), User Interface and User Experience (from the Cartography & Visualization Knowledge Area), and Unmanned Aerial Systems (from the Data Capture Knowledge Area).

Expanding and revising the GIS&T BoK in this manner is an investment that reflects the value that the community holds for this knowledge. Over the years the BoK has been used as a contributing document to several certificates and credentials, including the exam used by the GISCI to credential GIS Professionals. It was also one of several sources used by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation when it created its Essential Body of Knowledge. Going forward, the collection is likely to serve a significant role if formal accreditation processes become relevant for our fields.

Meanwhile, the digital version is designed to be flexible and accommodating for end users of many types. UCGIS has a goal that by the end of 2020, all published topics will be expanded versions of either original ones or new ones. But even well before that, additional functionality is being formulated to allow online comparisons between the topics and external documents such as a course syllabus, a CV, or a job description. Students, instructors, and practitioners would be able to evaluate their courses, their experiences, and published job information as one indicator of alignment. This is one key way to identify and target the type of professional development that would best fill the gaps in knowledge, skills, and abilities.

The GIS&T Body of Knowledge is supported and hosted by for the greater benefit of the geospatial community, and there are many ways to be involved. Consider staking a claim on a topic and sharing your little corner of expertise. UCGIS is in great need of reviewers as well. Diversity in academic and professional background is particularly desirable. Contacting someone from the editorial team is the right place to start.


Full disclosure: I am the executive director of UCGIS and am also currently serving as the project manager for the GIS&T Body of Knowledge; I’m a woman lucky enough to wear several hats these days. 


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