It’s Time for a Moon Shot for the Spatial Sector in Canada!

We choose to go…not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will
serve to measure and organize the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge
is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we
intend to win.             

-President John F. Kennedy,   September 12th, 1962, Rice University

We had a Space Program. What about a Spatial Program?

We often see articles about what needs to be done and ‘when’ talk about change being needed ‘now’. For many of us (and thinking of my students at this time), ‘now’ is such a difficult word. It adds an element of pressure and immediacy. It is an action verb for sure, and it is one of those we too often associate with ‘not so good’ memories. Or it can be exciting and a challenge! And there is one thing about human nature any good teacher or coach knows – we don’t excel unless we are under a little bit of stress.

The “now-ness” of the news is tough; fast changing topics and horrific events that affect us all and not only because of volume and the multitude of media platforms. Just when I had an article ready to go, resplendent with poetic statements about the state of the spatial sector, lo and behold the holiday elves decide to change things on me. For sometime now there was a discussion about GeoConnections materials and a lost NRCan web presence. The news was also full of dire predictions and angry statements about the status of our remote sensing sector due to a lack of support for Radarsat, among other things. Well, the GeoConnections site is back, and Radarsat has been saved by some last minute action by the Prime Minister. Or so it seems on the surface, as the cynic in me sees a great political strategist at work – shifting a bad news cycle about fighter jets, federal and provincial budgets under stress, and then drawn back to a patriotic thread based upon a Canadian going into space.

And yet, we should never have gotten to that stage in the first place! And herein rests the connection to what I originally wanted to talk about; the state of the sector and need for collaborations and change in how we speak, act and function through our professional associations; a lack of a shared, larger-than-ourselves vision that brings us together as a community. The short statement about this is that Canada lacks a national voice in geomatics. And I should take this back one step to my opening quote. Canada needs a spatial vision equal to the moon shot of the 1960s.

Now before I get caught up in lyrical prose about the nature of the spatial sector or the future of our profession relative to a much more competitive global marketplace, let me state my conclusion: we are over-populated. The lack of vision, and clarity of voice, comes from the simple organizational issue of having far too many voices speaking from amongst a similarly substantial number of specializations. My more learned colleagues who have been writing in GoGeomatics (Peggy March, Lynn Moorman, Scott Bell, Tracey Harvey, Bob Ryerson, etc.,) have likely stated things better. Each has touched upon the need to see what it is we are about, and to find a way to translate our collective into a community that can create action, impact and sustainable support.

Over-Populated with GeoSpatial Associations in Canada?

We are over-populated in that we have so many groups who really speak to the same sector and profession. Associations only work well when they have full time staff that can deal with the workload and keep things on track. Volunteers are essential, but we all volunteer and we all have lives that get in the way at times – no blame, as life can be full of things like birth, death, marriage, divorce, employment shifts, etc. It is a simple and harsh reality that the groups who have maintained or extended success – and as lobbying agents or forces to be reckoned with – are those with a large collective of members who have funded the group to an extent that allows the work to go on, and who have a very bold vision that people can get behind and support because it addresses their needs by addressing a larger-than-me-alone goal.

Paradoxically, it seems I suggested a new association be formed back when I proposed the Canadian Council for Geographic Education following the Baine CAG Education Committee Report in 1991. Ah, but truth be told, that wasn’t the idea. The goal was to merge educational efforts and committees from other associations into one group that could look at geographic – and geospatial – education from the primary through post-graduate and professional development levels. To work across association boundaries as a lobby equal to that of other disciplines, which  have enjoyed a good degree of success.

As an example, despite a limited industry presence, resources and support for public learning and teaching of history in Canada are fantastic, anchored around a national effort and vision. The Heritage Moments on television, and Globe and Mail ads about the importance of history education, are part of a successful national promotional campaign supported by, and meant to support, Canadian history and history education associations.  Simply put, a number of smaller groups, volunteers, and disparate voices agreed to the need to fix what was seen as a crisis (a ‘now’). They joined forces and set forth a simple vision which has clearly altered the actions on the ground in schools and even in public discourse.

One Voice: Education Groups in the Spatial Sector

In Canada, we have numerous committees and groups looking at the educational needs across the spatial sector. And each has a similar mission and goals, actions, and even shared members who sit on other committees. Overpopulation by overlap. There is a good reason to have local groups looking at implementation questions that require savvy to navigate the constitutional realities of education. The reality of our social and work lives is that 95% of what we do is within our local area; within a few kilometers of home. No matter what anyone does nationally or internationally, we will figure out if it works at the local level, and we will need volunteers at the local level to deliver whatever is developed collectively across jurisdictions. That allows for freedom and for the ability to react to local needs, and yes, that’s a good thing.

However, from a vision level, we need one voice. The call for a group to look at spatial education is valid, but we need not create a new body per se. We can gain more by joining our already numerous groups into a consortium. Perhaps some groups may need or wish to merge. Good. No group lasts forever. Times and people change. We need to adjust and now is the best time for that (there is that ‘now’ word again). It is possible, contrary to much of our Canadian history, of having a national vision that is supported at a local level. We already have standards for geography education. The problem is simply that the numbers of people supporting any one effort is so small that any potential impact is watered down.  If you have worked in politics (not the civil service), you know what I mean. Numbers and money matter. Of course, one needs a good idea and cause to support, but I would suggest that already exists.

Let us not forget that we work in an industry that lives and dies by standards and inter-operability. Our spatial data infrastructures require collaboration and cooperation. It is a matter of scale and the nested structures of the digital web that has become so central in our lives. Connectivity, hierarchy, local, regional, global. They all rest within each other. What we have missed, and are missing now, is a grand view, a challenge – a moon shot. We have failed to see our overlapping interests and common needs and missions. We have specialized and broken ourselves into smaller and smaller groups to a point where communities no longer exist. This must surely be the time of greatest connectivity (at least according to my Linkedin page) and yet it also seems like we are more fractionalized than ever before. Think globally, act locally. Hmm?

This is about the sector, the industry, the professional; an effort at the highest and grandest level; the need for infusion of excitement and life. It is about something bigger than any of us, or any of our individual groups. It will mean adjustment. It will mean fund raising and some serious support from numerous people and companies across the sector. It will mean some people will have to step up as leaders like never before. What I suggest is not easy, nor is it without risk. However, without a challenge or a risk, we do not reach our full potential. We are never capable of knowing what we really can do until we challenge ourselves to do more. And now is the best time.

A Call to Action in the Canadian Spatial Sector!

And so, I call upon and challenge colleagues. Those who are or have held positions of leadership within associations, I challenge you to speak up about this and see what it is that we can do as one, rather than as many. If we are building something better, then the message has to be what we gain. We need to reorganize ourselves and tweak our professional associations immediately. This has to be done in such a way to form a consortium of groups that are spatially inclined, geographically minded and focused on providing solutions to enhance learning and research. Above that, it must translate into business and government solutions (citizen solutions) which will benefit us all, as we are now at the tipping point in our social, economic and environmental crises. Does that sound tough? Dire? Yes! This is not the time to shy away from the big questions and the hard work.

We need a summit meeting and now. We need to be open, honest, and collegial. By way of example, look at the consortia of groups active in the US, led in large part by the forceful diplomatic energy of AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson (if you want to meet a tireless voice and advocate for geography, chat with Doug!). They seek nothing less than a Bill to pass through Congress for supporting geography education (defined broadly to be framed as inclusion of spatial technology). It reminds me of the collective, consortial work done in the mid-80s in the US which gave rise to Geography Awareness Week, the Geography Education Foundation, and GIS Day.

Canadian Council for Geographic Education

The 20th anniversary of the Canadian Council for Geographic Education is fast approaching. And what plans do we have to build on this? To celebrate this? Nothing, yet. I urge us to have an event, sometime within the next six months, with as many spatial educators as possible, to focus on this question and develop a common front. This will be a summit of the leadership of the various groups. Technology may allow some to attend virtually by distance, but face-to-face is always useful. I have begun to arrange at least one event here in Halifax to deal with some local and regional questions, and I would suggest other people look at this locally and regionally as well. Perhaps the CAG meeting in August at Memorial University would be an ideal time? I am arranging a spring meeting in Halifax, and we could borrow that if people wish.

Finally, and in keeping with the tone and substance of this editorial, and borrowing from what I see as perhaps the only moon shot speech in our sector (the 1998 Digital Earth Vision), this is not about education and training alone. This is about the whole of geography; it’s not just geomatics. It is about the sector in government, business, citizen groups and NGOs. It is about all of us who seem genetically geared to think and work spatially. The moon shot in the 1960s was not only about engineers and astronauts; it was about business and education too. The impact in all the sciences and technology is still with us today. And if you like that sort of thing, recall that GIS is celebrating a 50th anniversary, which makes this a great time to reposition our efforts. It must be a one spatial family, one spatial program, one future spatial vision as the leaders.

Stand up and be counted. Yes, and now. The stakes are too high and time is of the essence. It is now, not never. This can be a decade of change and growth, of renewal and focus. Or we can tag along with others and lose our leadership status. We can rest on our laurels as we say how great it is to be the nation that gave rise to GIS, while watching geography and GIS wither away and leave our school curriculum. Or we can place before us the moon shot to be the nation that will lead the spatial sector. Are you up for some excitement and the challenge? Now is such a funny word.

Postscript: Why of course the devil is in the details, and a few people across the country are starting to think through those. But when the moon shot was begun, the vision and goal was the first thing on the table. The details, and there ended up being 400,000 people working on those, lasted a decade and required the highest level of planning ever; some things needed to get to the moon did not even exist when Kennedy set forth his challenge. In my next posting, here or on my own blog, I will outline as many details as I dare because this is a community effort, and too much at the start will create a barrier to nimble adjustments and action. I will use my local situation and efforts as a means to structure the effort and establish the common goals and vision.


About our Author: James Boxall

James Boxall is the Director of the Dalhousie GISciences Centre. He teaches geography and spatial information management at Dalhousie. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), as well as a member of the College of Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. In 2012 he received the Special Achievement in GIS Award from Esri, and the Geo-Literacy Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He can be reached at or on Linkedin and Twitter (@jamesGIS).

8 Responses to “It’s Time for a Moon Shot for the Spatial Sector in Canada!”

  1. Darren

    Hi James,

    Great article.

    On Wednesday, January 16 I am doing my part. I am holding the GeoNiagara Roundtable discussion at which I have invited representatives from education K-12 and college/university as well as representatives of business and business organizations and government to create, promote and attract a geospatial economy to the Niagara region.

    I am very much looking forward to the discussion.

    • James Boxall

      Thanks to all for comments. In addition, I am thinking about what my colleague, Bob Maher, said today and the connections across disciplines and what Tyler mentions about education or what Peter hall talked about from his vantage point. Considering the news about geography education in Canada that spread like wildfire, even in the depths of a cold snap this winter; or to be fair, the one news piece about one case of students “not knowing” some basic information, I am wondering if part of our issue isn’t definition. Yikes! That’s the one thing I recall from undergrad days and honours seminars that drove me batty. “What shall we call ourselves and to who shall we speak” is often raised as a topic in such hours of reading the history and philosophy of the subject.

      I don’t want to over simplify the questions and issues, but for once I will rest upon the words (repeatedly) spoken by Roger Tomlinson who suggests we are all geographers and doing geography. At the core, this thing we do under many names has a history and tradition that joins us. A vision in to the future, the first step of that moon shot, must be a appreciation of that and the practical matter of how having a common framework or roots can help us all. We spend a great deal of time tracing our own roots; we spend time learning about and celebrating our various cultural and ethic backgrounds (thinking of today as Robbie Burns Day). And yet, I can’t help but think a large part of the issue is that we don’t seem to share a language or even know our own history of the very thing we do and enjoy.

      I am trying to put these thoughts down to paper in a more structured manner and add to my own blogs for my students (and this is teaching time, so my social networking isn’t as fast or productive as I may wish.

      thanks for the comments!

  2. Tyler Mitchell

    Great call to action James. Coming at the education problem from the commercial side I’ve seen a few confusing things that I hope we can help address.
    One is curriculum development – many profs seem to just recycle material provided by software companies. (Imagine if our political science profs did something analogous to that) As a result they tend to admit that they need to provide a more diverse education, but when they look around they have a hard time finding resources (without writing their own). I’m trying to help here with my work on books through Locate Press publishers.
    The other concern I have is that we aim to teach what I would call “trades” training in liberal arts universities by focusing on enabling a particular skillset on specific software tools. You know this is true when you see the exact same things being taught at “competing” colleges just down the road. I think we’ve muddied the water here. I wouldn’t dare suggest removing GIS technical training from universities, but what should it really look like? Another way to look at it would be, where should I direct aspiring students to go to study geomatics? What if they just need a job in the oil sector? What if they need to design large scale research programs? The answer may differ, but it’s not clear tome. Perhaps the coming together of these different programs across institutions is necessary.

    Anyway, you got me thinking about more than just education, but I’m filling up this comment box too quickly already! Thanks again!

    • James Boxall

      My apologies for the delay in replying. Here’s the reason for the delay: after posting my ideas and concerns, I ended up going to Ottawa for two days to participate with the Rounndtable On Geomatics in Canada. First of all, I need to repeat my thanks to the people at GeoConnections for their help and organization. A great group of people who are as committed to the next phase and growth as any of us.
      Secondly, the meeting was attended by 30 people from all parts of the sector who, collectively, probably represented the vast majority of us through associations, companies, educational institutions and government. It would be impossible to have everyone at the table, and accomplish the task at hand, and everyone there accepted the need for the community to become involved and for the discussion AND actions to migrate out from the group to us all.
      Rather than try and explain everything here, I am going to jot down a follow-up to my last post in light of what I saw, heard and experienced during those two days of intensive thought, debate and definition of action.
      I hope it will suffice for now to say that it was one of the few (first) meetings I came away from feeling energized. I feel hope. I see opportunity. After 25 years of participating in forums and boards and associations, with similar exercises, this was the first time I left feeling part of a team. The honesty, collegiality, laughter, concern and desire could be felt in the room. It was transformative, and I now see it as the moon shot. The next step is, well, “one small step” but it will also be “one giant leap”.

  3. Peter Halls

    A great and thought provoking article, thank you. Away to the east, here in the UK, we do have one voice: the Association for Geographic Information (AGI), founded in response to the Chorely Report so many years ago. Or, at least we try to have one voice. It is very difficult when governments and administrators will not take one word for it, but must go rooting around (especially) to find the dissenting voice, so that they can then discount all the evidence and carry on regardless.

    We teach GI Science, not as a degree discipline but as a module within many degrees across the Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities. Yes, project work will usually be performed using a commercial product – our government now measures us on ’employability’ – but we believe that a student who understands the fundamentals can adapt to whatever environment, commercial or Open Source, they find. This means that our focus is also much more on applied GISc, within the many disciplines who recognise the spatial dimension to be important. We do not mind if a student must consult multiple texts – indeed, as a research university, we expect students to explore the bibliographic depth of the subjects they study – and to be able to relate to similarities in the work of other disciplines.

    Is this Geography? Probably not but, as a Geologist, I do not care! Tyler eventually got to the many, non ‘geography’, disciplines for whom the spatial component matters. Where should one direct aspiring students? To the ‘right’ universities for the discipline of interest and the person seeking to apply. Diversity is a very good thing in education: each individual learns differently and so different approaches or emphases are important.

    James began with a very Canadian-centric concern – sad, considering how much GIS owes to Candadian initiatives: I think there are elements here that apply to us all.

  4. Karl Donert

    Great article and interesting comments.
    The point that too many cooks (associations) is very relevant – though the AGI might operate in the UK, in a European context we have a plethora of national and European agencies, each wanting to promote/protect their own perspective and little/no cooperation among/between them. As a result lobbying for what is really important is limited and appears to policy makers to be fragmented. So how can/do we really bring people together? They all care passionately about ‘geospatial’.
    I thought ab event like the Geospatial World Forum, held in Amsterdam last May, might have been an opportunity. It didn’t happen, despite the sessions and agreements about action there.


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