Are there too many GIS post-diploma programs and University GIS certifications in Canada?

In the late 1980s, the prevailing notion was that we had three GIS post-diploma programs in Canada, at BCIT, SSFC and COGS. Just over a year ago, I completed a curriculum review of GIS programs for Esri Canada. At that time, my list included 25 universities and 10 colleges. It was not intended to be a comprehensive list but rather to allow an investigation of the curriculum variations in post-secondary education institutions that were using Esri products.

Has the supply at the entry level exceeded the demand? This question can be best answered through contact with new graduates. Part of GoGeomatics response to this question, as we’re seeing, has been to offer a retraining program for GIS graduates who may be interested in the opportunities in the surveying industry.

A third approach is to ask how and if these technologies are being used for teaching and research in different inter-disciplinary programs? Can we design a post-secondary curriculum which has a better mix of concepts, applications and technology? For example, at the University of Alberta, GIS is not treated as a disciplinary specific skill set.

Finally, stepping up to another level, what are the societal demands for a geographic approach to complex problems? One model from the United States is UC Santa Barbara and the Center for Spatially Integrated Social Sciences.

I would make the following argument. In Canada, we have a huge, complex geography. We have significant issues related to land claims, land use, marine and coastal ecosystems. We are experiencing dramatic changes in our resource economy. Thus, it’s not a question of too many programs but rather developing the expertise in understanding these complex societal issues, and learning the appropriate use of GIS and other technologies. This requires a radical rethinking of the discipline of Geography, and its inter-relationship with the Earth, Social and Space sciences. It requires a rethinking of ‘geographic data’. Who owns it? How it can be shared for the common good?

Without dating myself too much, I pulled two books from my bookshelf by Carl Sauer: Man in Nature and Northern Mists. Both were written around the 1970s, published through Turtle Island Press. Here is a renowned Cultural Geographer, writing texts for the general public and schools, which describe both the geography and history of the North American continent (including Canada).

Move forward fifty years, imagine access to the current technologies, how would we treat these subjects? How would that curriculum impact our society, our economy, and back to the original question, our use of GIS technology?

I would encourage the wider academic community to address the curriculum question, as it relates to society’s future needs.

I would encourage citizens to demand better, easier access to geographic data about our landscape.

I don’t think there exists an over-supply of programs but rather a lack of appreciation for the future demand, along with more effective curricula.

Geography education is about understanding our relationship to the world around us. We need to seek out the best examples of a culture’s relationship to their environment. We need to seek out the best examples of communication about that relationship through a culture’s writers, philosophers, musicians, and artists.

One form of Geography education that I have been examining is through travel. In the last month, I have had the opportunity to spend time in both England and Nunavut. This has allowed me to contrast different regions of Canada, as well as to compare the information culture in different countries. Please see the references at the bottom of this article for further reading.

Let’s start with England. The primary purpose was to walk part of the coastal path in Cornwall. Part of the culture is travel writing, which provided the opportunity to catch up with newspapers, journalists and writers. Readings included books by both AA Gill and Michael Palin. AA Gill has two collections where the objective is to interview places. He includes a wonderful conversation at the Royal Geographical Society about whether there remain new places to explore. Palin has written two volumes of his diaries, which include Travelling to Work. He is no stranger to Canadian geographers through the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

cornwall coastal path Geography Education: Travels to England and Nunavut

A second observation about England is the depth of information that exists on the British landscape. In Cornwall at the National Trust bookstore in Boscastle, I picked up a book calledThe Wild Things, from a TV series on Channel Four. It describes the changes in plant distribution across the country. This book is based primarily on the plant atlas, produced fifty years ago by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI). Another example comes from the graveyard at St. Genny’s church, north of Crackington Haven. On the noticeboard, a sheet stated that the graveyard was the habitat for 130 species of lichen, the second highest in the country. Remarkable information!

lichen Geography Education: Travels to England and NunavutThe extent of lichen colonization on a churchyard bench

This depth of information, plus the historical BSBI benchmark based on a citizen science network, contrasts strongly with my experiences in different parts of Canada.

Returning to Nunavut, much of the knowledge of the landscape remains in the heads of the Inuit elders. It is reflected in their art and story-telling, and is likely inaccessible to most Canadians in the South. However, some of the best external writing can be found in the work of Hugh Brody.

One of the joys of visiting Iqaluit is to go upstairs in the Arctic Ventures store and browse the books. There, I found Ava and the Little Folk by Neil Christopher and Alan Neal, published by Inhabit Media. It is a wonderfully illustrated description of an Inuit folk tale. Another joy, even in late September, is to be able to pick cranberries within a hundred metres on the house on the open tundra.

What is the message?

We have a new age of travel. It is possible to make these observations on the ground, and read the local authors. At the same time, we maintain our connections and interests with other geographies through the Internet. We can appreciate a ‘sense of place’. We can develop and share ‘story maps’.

The importance is that through travel, feet on the ground, we can expand our attitude towards other species and other cultures, as well as observe the impact of different economic models. Travel does not have to be exploitative. It can be informative. It can be shared electronically.

My action is to encourage greater appreciation of Geography in the schools. To go beyond lists of places or maps as visual objects, to include an understanding of our landscape, its history, and the changes that we are affecting through ongoing political and economic processes.


AA Gill is Away. 2002

AA Gill Is Further Away. 2012

Michael Palin. Diaries 1980-88 Halfway to Hollywood

Michael Palin. Diaries 1988-98. Travelling to Work

Trevor Dines et al. The Wild Things: Guide to the Changing Plant Life of the British Isles. 2012.

Hugh Brody. Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier. 1981

Hugh Brody. The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. 2000.

Neal Christopher & Alan Neal. Ava and the Little Folk. 2013

Canada has enjoyed a global reputation for the development of new technologies needed to manage its resources. A few familiar examples include the legacy of Roger Tomlinson in the field of GIS, the early work of the Canadian Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS) and more recently, the development of LiDAR technology. Besides the technologies themselves, there has been their creative application in forestry, mining, agriculture, conservation and regional planning.

Now, there are major shifts in context, with the widespread availability of location enabled mobile devices, web applications, sensor networks and robotics. From the perspective of a resident in rural Nova Scotia, with an interest in economic development, there has not been a matching shift in the decentralization of geographic information and the placing of application tools into the hands of the citizens.

The CGCRT conversation remains between the public institutions, the academic community and the private sector.

If you accept my argument, there should be more time spent on the following questions.

a) Rather than focus on the sharing of information between government departments, focus on the access to tools and data for citizens to formulate their own analysis e.g. community mapping.

b) Consider geographic information as part of our infrastructure e.g. community information utility in Sault Ste. Marie.

c) If the funding agencies can provide sufficient monies for Geographic Sciences and Geomatics Engineering, we will continue to see technology breakthroughs and innovation.

d) Make sure that the graduates not only have strong conceptual understanding, well-honed practical skills but have the opportunity apply these skills, along with the new media, to assist local businesses and communities.

We live in a large diverse country, encompassing many different geographies. The challenge is to build the grass roots networks that will impact the regional economies. This requires Geographic Sciences education and collaboration at the regional scale.

This is the antithesis to Boxall’s ‘moonshot’. It should be viewed as a complementary perspective – small incremental steps at the local level, merging the traditional technologies of the geographic sciences with the new technologies.

The Chronicle Herald published the following article on February 19th titled “Geographic pioneer was Acadia prof Roger Tomlinson promoted his GIS system around the world” by Bob Maher.

Short excerpt from the article:

Roger Tomlinson, the father of geographic information systems (GIS), will be remembered by many in the  Annapolis Valley as somebody who helped cement the global reputation of a small Nova Scotia “survey school” whose graduates remain in demand around the world.

The six-foot-seven scientist arrived in Wolfville in 1959 to teach physical geography at Acadia University. His height and his flaming red beard ensured that he would attract immediate attention on the small rural campus but, more than half a century later, we remember his work that led to the development of modern mapping techniques and a multibillion dollar industry employing thousands worldwide.

Tomlinson eventually left Acadia …  continue reading 

Excerpt of Roger Tomlinson’s obituary recently published in the Globe an Mail.

What’s the smartest location for a new coffee shop? Where do you deliver food and water in a city hit by a catastrophic earthquake? How fast are glaciers melting?

Roger Tomlinson taught us how to solve such puzzles.

An Ottawa-based geographer, Dr. Tomlinson has been called the “father” of the world’s first geographic information system (GIS), a method of computerized map-making that he pioneered in the 1960s. By combining in an interactive map not just topographic features, but other data that can be linked to specific locations (such as census findings, gas lines, nickel deposits or even beetle invasions), he revolutionized the storage and analysis of spatial information.

Today, governments, corporations, relief organizations and many others use GIS to analyze and plan development projects, mount retail promotion campaigns, track changes to landscapes and respond to emergencies. Although Dr. Tomlinson developed his GIS insights before the advent of satellite mapping and global positioning system (GPS) receivers that put users into maps, his work paved the way for the waves of cartographic innovations that followed, including Google Maps.

Dr. Tomlinson, 80, who died on Feb. 7 of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, once said that although he may have fathered GIS, many others were raising the child. Indeed, when he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada last year, the citation noted that his “landmark creation underpins virtually all spatial analysis and has enabled new questions to be asked in a wide variety of disciplines as diverse as telecommunications, epidemiology and resource management.”

continue reading …

My last blog was in the Spring, at the time, I had been asked by Jonathan Murphy (COGS graduate) to write on the ‘myth of COGS’ for GoGeomatics. Since, we have been distracted by two other projects. The first was a National Survey for Esri Canada on the status of undergraduate GIS curriculum. We conducted an online survey of twenty four universities and ten community colleges. We produced a summary report and a set of recommendations. The second project was in support of the Georgetown, PEI conference on ‘Redefining rural’ hosted by the Atlantic Canada newspapers. Our contribution was ‘Road to Georgetown’ venue at COGS in May, where residents from Annapolis County described their rationale for rural living.

This was followed later in the Summer by a trek from Yarmouth to Georgetown, PEI (see by myself, Heather Stewart and Edward Wedler.

Now, with those projects complete, it is time to return to the ‘story of COGS’. To date, we have submitted three chapters for peer review by COGS colleagues. We (Heather and myself) anticipate the final two chapters before Christmas. At that time, an electronic version will be available on this web site. It will be open for comments, suggestions and improvements. There are a number of possible complementary tasks however we will wait to see if there is an audience, both from alumni as well as from the NSCC.

I have reserved the ‘storyofCOGS’ domain from GoDaddy for one more year. This should allow lots of time for broader feedback.