GIS: A Field That is Changing With the Times or One That is Aging in Place?

September 14, 2011

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The tremendous growth in the number of disciplines and groups within academiawhose members use spatial perspectives in their teaching and/or research, coupled with the recent rebranding of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Geography and Spatial Sciences Program, the emergence of new interdisciplinary spatial sciences centers (e.g. Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California) and academic programs (e.g. Spatial Studies Minor at the University of California at Santa Barbara) and new journals (e.g. Journal of Spatial Information Science) all point to the emergence of the spatial sciences as a cross-cutting and transformative field that can contribute to both basic and applied research across the academic arena. These changes prompted a group of academics to come together in late April 2011 at a workshop at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island to actively consider the future of the spatial sciences. The meeting was co-sponsored by the University of Southern California and the University of Oklahoma and engaged the past and present leadership of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS).

The UCGIS was established in 1995. It is a nonprofit association of more than 70 universities with multidisciplinary graduate education and research activities in geographic information science. It is governed by a nine-member board of directors, with a council of delegates that represent member universities. In addition to convening research meetings, the UCGIS sponsors workshops, curriculum-related projects and other special initiatives designed to benefit the community as a whole, which are beyond the scope of activities that can be undertaken at a single university. Examples of such projects and resulting products include the Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge, affectionately called the BoK, and A Research Agenda for Geographic Information Science. In short, the UCGIS is a professional hub for the GIS research and education community, and serves as a national voice to advocate for its members’ interests.

The group that assembled at Catalina Island began by taking stock of the tremendous accomplishments that have characterized GIScience and related fields during the past two decades. These accomplishments have been documented in several recent handbooks and review articles and include: (1) a series of advances in GIScience theory and methodology; (2) sustained technology innovation, usability and transfer; (3) a growing consensus on curriculum and workforce development; and (4) some considerable success in planting the seeds for a spatially enabled society.

From there, the discussions shifted to the changing context of the spatial sciences because the aforementioned accomplishments of the field,when considered together with sweeping societal and technological changes,have elevated the need to integrate basic and applied research and innovation on the one hand and research, education and best practices (i.e. training) on the other. This part of the deliberations covered the launch and spread of new technologies, spread of geospatial information and tools across all levels of government, the growth and diversification of a geospatial industry, increasing concerns with privacy issues, the widening gap between technology support and human capacity, and the changing priorities and expectations of society at large.

The third part of the deliberations focused on the importance of the spatial sciences and the ways in which academiacan help to create and sustain a spatially-enabled society by addressing six fundamental challenges and problems: (1) the need for new forms of geospatial data analysis, modeling and visualization to support new data acquisition methods and data types; (2) the increasing realization that space and time must be considered in tandem to identify and understand dynamic phenomena, events and relationships; (3) the need to formalize the functionality of GIScience; (4) the increasing recognition that place is important across many academic disciplines and application domains; (5) the role of spatial orientation and location enablement as fundamental building blocks for a spatially enabled society; and (6) the need to expand and promote the role of spatial thinking and spatial reasoning across the curriculum.

The last part of the workshop focused on the ways in whichtheUCGIS might be reorganized to better serve its members and the nation as a whole given past accomplishments and the broader societal and technology trends noted above. WhentheUCGIS was established in 1995, it was possible to imagine bringing the spatial sciences under one umbrella. The initial goal was to grow the work and impact of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, which had been very successful in building some initial teaching materials to support geographic information science teaching (when very few textbooks were available) and in connecting individuals with common or at least complementary research interests by way of a series of specialist meetings.TheUCGIS was organized from the outset around a series of institutional (as opposed to individual) memberships that were designed to energize and inform what was happening on individual campuses and on the national stage. UCGIS typically organized an annual Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. focused on geospatial lobbying and a Summer Assembly that was mostly focused on research (but occasionally focused on education) and whose location moved around the country.

The participants at the Catalina Island workshop wondered whether these protocols serve academiaas well today as they did when the UCGIS was first established. One of the most important questions they began to ask focused on UCGIS membership: Who could or should be served? Whilethe answer (academia) has probably not changed since 1995, the composition and liaisons of the core GIScience faculty probably have changed. The fact that spatial perspectives have spread from research universities to community colleges, small liberal arts colleges and universities predominantly serving undergraduates,and a variety of centers, departments, disciplines and institutes suggests the need for the UCGIS to consider how it would engage a broader cross-section of the community than it has done thus far.

Participants also saw a need for the UCGIS to re-imagine the ways in which services are delivered. For example, some thought that the Winter Meeting and the current Summer Assembly should be combined into a single annual meeting in hopes of creating and sponsoring the nation’s premier academic spatial sciences conference. Such a reputation would, of course, need to be earned over several years but many of the ingredients are known. Participants argued for a meeting that would engage both senior and junior scholars, provide fast and transparent opportunities for publication, connect basic and applied research as well as research and education,and most importantly, include the hot topics and "hot" technologies. It was suggested that the newly redesigned conference draw on, and blend,some of the exciting things happening in the technology domain (the Where 2.0 crowd,for example) as well as a variety of other domains. The UCGIS board has taken this suggestion to heart and is proposing a symposium in May 2012 that will incorporate many of these ideas.

Less concrete but potentially useful activities for such a revitalized and reoriented UCGIS might involve taking leadership positions in building the grassroots support needed to establish a community of scholars with sufficient heft to propose collaborative research initiatives that NSF or NIH might fund, in organizing a series of specialist meetings (hot topics) to bring interested scholars together and accelerate advances of knowledge on these topics, and in organizing a series of regular meetings aimed at senior graduate students and young scholars similar to what is done with the GEOIDE Network in Canada and the Vespucci Initiative in Europe.

The Catalina Island workshop was convened by leaders in academiain order to start a conversation about the future of the spatial sciences and the role that the UCGIS might serve in helping to build and sustain a vibrant community of spatial science scholars across academia. A copy of the full workshop report is available on the USC Spatial Sciences Institute website.

We invite readers to share their ideas about the future of spatial sciences, particularly what they see as grand challenges for the field, as well as topics, trends and directions that can be explored and discussed at future UCGIS conferences. The field is changing and so is the UCGIS. We invite you to get involved!


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