UCGIS Tackles Geographic Information Science in the 21st Century

November 20, 2013

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The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) was established in 1995 to advance research in the field of Geographic Information Science and to strengthen its use in education and advocate for its ethical use by growing scholarly communities and networks. In July of this year Diana Sinton became its latest executive director. Directions Magazine asked her about the organization and its latest challenge, the GIS&T Body of Knowledge, version two.
Directions Magazine (DM): The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science promotes and advocates for research and education in the field. What exactly is geographic information science? Is that an academic/research term or should geographic information systems practitioners be using it too?
Diana Sinton (DS): Geographic information science refers to the knowledge of how geographic information can be represented, modeled, analyzed, understood and reasoned with, etc. No geographic information system could exist without someone having applied that type of knowledge to the design and building of the GIS, and there is also a science behind how GIS is used to support spatially-based decisions. The term “science” shouldn’t be off-putting to practitioners, and it’s the best word for this collection of information. It simply references information that can be systematically explained and applied. Geographic information science contributes to all of the functions behind our geographic information systems. 
DM: UCGIS grew out of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s establishment of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) back in 1988. How do the challenges UCGIS faced back then compare to those on the docket today?
DS: When UCGIS became incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1995, far fewer people appreciated the important role that geospatial data and technologies could play in the world. In the intervening two decades, both knowledge and applications have spread and there is less need to convince anyone in industry, science and government, for example, about the importance of these important areas. Geospatial data are firmly part of the Big Data movement today. 
However, UCGIS works directly with and on behalf of institutions of higher education, and the messages about GIScience are not as widely recognized and appreciated with that audience. Understanding the value and opportunities around geographical thinking and perspectives can be a hard sell in academia. Moreover, the economic crisis of the last few years has eliminated much of the discretionary funding that institutions and government agencies used for organizational memberships in the past. Our operating budget comes almost entirely from dues payments, providing relatively little long-term security at this point. Thus, aiming to diversify our sources of income is now an element of our long-term planning. 
Twenty years ago, GIS and GIScience were tiny players on a university campus. UCGIS was founded primarily by the most active and heavy hitters at large, public universities, faculty with steady and ambitious research agendas. They most often represented a single department on their campus, probably the geography department. Fast forward 20 years, and the GIS presence on campuses is wholly different. At large institutions, scholars involved in GIScience-informed research are likely to be active and present in multiple departments, branching way out from geography alone. Because of the growing interest in GIS as an entry-way to learning in many disciplines, institution-wide GIS centers are even common among UCGIS member schools. This abundance itself can even be a challenge to manage, and to leverage. As spatial analysis and geographic data visualization become more common-place, how does the role of GIScience evolve and continue to be relevant? This is both a challenge and opportunity for our member institutions, and therefore for UCGIS too. We discussed some of the specifics in this overview article on GIS use and adoption published last year in Directions Magazine.
DM: The vast majority of UCGIS members are U.S. colleges and universities. Should other organizations consider joining? Why?
DS: Colleges and universities will continue to comprise our core set of members, but our affiliate membership plan is designed with other organizations in mind. UCGIS holds an important spot at the nexus of where GIScience and GIS&T meet up within higher education venues. It’s our mission to stay current on the issues that affect GIScience research and education: policies and legislation, trends and practices, curriculum and workforce demands. Being part of UCGIS means having a seat at the table, becoming part of the community of practice that not only values these issues, but is well-informed about them. Our relatively small size allows us to be nimble and reactive, as well as strategic and proactive. We facilitate networking and outreach, and seek opportunities for creative and effective partnerships with industry, government and the private sector, when the projects are aligned with our mission and in the best interest of our members. 
If it’s important to a group or organization or institution to know they can reach and engage with this audience, those at the intersection of GIS&T and higher education, then involving themselves with UCGIS is an obvious choice. We welcome inquiries about new memberships.
DM: One key initiative of UCGIS is a revision of the Geographic Information Science & Technology (GIS&T) Body of Knowledge from 2006. It’s available as a free PDF, with support from Esri and AAG. The new version, to be known as BoK2, is expected in 2015. Why do we need an update? 
DS: The only thing constant is change, and that’s certainly true within a discipline that focuses on geospatial technologies. Curricula and the knowledge on which it’s built have to accommodate the changes within our discipline: new ways of creating and contributing data (VGI, crowdsourcing, new sensors, etc.) and news ways of engaging with technologies (mobile mapping, location-based services, etc.). No one ever intended the first version of the BoK to be the forever-version. It was a necessary first step, and its authors and UCGIS have known from the beginning that it would be revised at some point. Every effort is being made to have these processes be both transparent and participatory. 
The BoK2 project will let us graduate from a paper-based, book format to an online platform that better facilitates interaction with the content, to explore and discover connections and learning pathways that are not now readily possible. This is also an opportunity to bring other voices into the creative authorship mix, and make strategic design decisions. We expect the new platform to include a sustainable information architecture and an infrastructure to allow for new content curation strategies. We want to improve the ways in which people can extract the particular knowledge that is most meaningful to them, such as natural learning communities, subject matter experts, and diverse groups of educators. More attention will be paid to alignment with the Department of Labor’s Geospatial Technology Competency Model, not because these two collections serve competing purposes, but because both represent efforts to benefit the GIS educational community and the workforce that relies on GIS&T. 
DM: What is UCGIS’ role in developing the new document? What is the process to create the new version and how can practitioners and other interested parties participate?
DS: As the copyright holder of the original and future versions, UCGIS has taken the lead role in guiding this revision process. In late 2012, we asked John Wilson, of the University of Southern California’s Spatial Science Institute, to direct the multi-year project for us. Since that time, several workshops and information gathering sessions have been held with different groups of stakeholders, and John has now organized a 25-member Steering Committee that is to begin an 18-month-long process of discussions, contributions and development. There will be several meetings held at which interested parties will be able to share their ideas and have their voices heard, including at the 2014 AAG conference in Tampa and the 2014 UCGIS Symposium in Pasadena.  On the UCGIS website, we will be building a page dedicated to the BoK2 project where we will share status updates and provide a chance for the curious to post questions and comments.

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