It Takes a Village: Intersections between Geospatial Professionals, Governments and Educators

November 30, 2016

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Significant and widespread accomplishments involving digital technologies at a national level, whether in schools or homes or businesses, are possible through cooperative planning and creative partnerships. The larger, more ambitious the project, the more coordination – and long-term commitments – will be required to increase the likelihood of measurable success. Given the ways in which geospatial technologies cross the sectors of government, infrastructure, and education, it is no surprise that examples from the world of geospatial technologies are emerging.

In 2007 the Uruguayan government launched Plan Ceibal, a plan to provide a laptop computer for each child enrolled in a public school, and made a parallel commitment to expand and provide high-speed Internet access across the country. Since then, reliable Internet access has enabled notable national programs in health care, agriculture, and social services, as referenced in this video, Uruguay Digital 2015. The Internet has also allowed Plan Ceibal to pursue and expect increasingly innovative usage of those laptops, such as providing online instruction for learning English and accessing open educational resources that are aligned with school subjects.

Of course, there’s a place for GIS in this mix too. The Ministry of Transportation and Public Works’ National Bureau of Surveying has partnered with gvSIG, a Spanish association of developers of an open source GIS software, on gvSIG Batoví (Spanish) which aims to be “GIS applied to educational environments intended for Plan Ceibal and based on gvSIG.”

However, the initial instance of gvSIG Batoví was designed only for use with the limited operating system of the Ceibal laptops, which is ultimately limiting for an initiative with broader potential and ambitions. Thus the partnership has led gvSIG to develop gvSIG Educa, a prototype for what a country-specific, educational GIS might look like. The idea is that both students and teachers would have access to a GIS that comes complete with numerous layers of data at many relevant geographic scales, and the users can combine these to produce their own maps that help them reach their educational goals. On-going efforts to develop and enhance the platform have been aided by contributions from the global OSGeo community, such as a recent contribution via Google’s Summer of Code.

Meanwhile in Uruguay, activities continue that are mutually beneficial to all sectors involved. Workshops and classes have been offered to both teachers and students, and the platform is being shared with future geography teachers in their teachers’ college. Prepared materials (in Spanish) for those events, such as this manual for a workshop for secondary students and this one for geography teachers can be downloaded from the OSGeo website. Through their involvement with these programs, the National Bureau of Surveying has opportunities to share its activities with potential future employees, and the data being produced as part of the spatial data infrastructure of Uruguay is reaching new national audiences. The Geospatial Information Technologies Working Group of the University of Uruguay’s College of Engineering, another contributing partner in the project, can connect too with both prospective students and relevant government departments.

In other countries, some partnerships are less formal or official but the activities are equally valuable. For example, in Belize the Esri distributor, Total Business Systems, Limited, is generous in the ways in which it provides GIS-based visualizations of data of national interest. During the national presidential and congressional elections in 2015, they produced live maps to be shared online and over TV as results were being returned. To help put the results into a historical context, they produced an Esri Story Map that highlights changing electoral patterns and enables simple comparisons of the general election results over the last 30 years. This is but one of the map series available in the Belize GIS Education Portal that TBSL has built and maintains.

Companies such as TBSL donate time and effort to educational activities and resources because they are committed to long-term outcomes and the value of geographical thinking for an educated citizenry. Issues that have a specific geographic context are on the minds of many Belizeans, such as the disputed border with Guatemala and the risks associated with seasonal hurricanes and flooding. Using geospatial technologies like GIS to understand these topics is a no-brainer, and it isn’t difficult to get students excited about the technologies. TBSL just hosted its 5th annual World GIS Day Expo in November and over 900 students attended. Among the exhibitors were the Statistical Institute of Belize, the Belize Police Department, the Belize telephone company, and the Coastal Zone Management Authority. Creating opportunities for students to see diverse applications of the technologies in both the government and private sectors is an obvious but fundamental step towards future workforce awareness.

As in Uruguay, educators in Belize are also learning about the possible roles for geospatial technologies in teaching and learning. The same week of their Expo, TBSL organized and hosted two workshops for primary, secondary, and tertiary school educators that focused on the potential for use of GIS to support learning across the curricula. (Full disclosure: one of this article’s authors, Diana Sinton, was an instructor in those workshops.) These may even have been the very first GIS educational workshops in Belize, and the country has no particular “champion” within its government that is currently promoting and encouraging the use of educational GIS, but even baby-steps eventually lead somewhere.


GIS Day 2016 in Belize

There is no single one-size-fits-all model or type of partnerships among commercial, governmental, public and private entities when it comes to GIS and education. Instead it’s a series of evolving dances and multiple partners will alternate taking the lead. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches have their time and place, as well as the use of proprietary and open source software solutions, and all of this will be taking place concurrently anyway. When a government opens educational doors with programs like Plan Ceibal in Uruguay or ConnectEd in the United States, companies like gvSIG or Esri might be well-positioned to get their respective GIS feet in those respective doors. Or, sometimes a local voice for a larger company plays that role, like when Spatial Innovision Limited signed on to manage the GIS licenses for dozens of Jamaican schools on behalf of the government.   

Ultimately, success is still dependent on the community to sustain and nurture the programs beyond their initial marketing and document-signing phases. It’s the boots on the ground that count in the end, so whether it’s GeoMentors or Geo For All, make sure you build the human connections into the plan. 


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