Opinion: Canada Doesn’t Have Too Many GIS Programs

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.

About our Author: Robert Maher

Bob Maher obtained his Ph.D in Geography from the University of Western Ontario. He subsequently went to teach at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Department of Geography – Quantitative Methods, Computer Mapping and Biogeography. In 1980, he joined the faculty at the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute and was instrumental in its transformation into the College of Geographic Sciences (COGS). Between 1988 – 1999, he was a GIS consultant in Indonesia, and worked for ESRI in the United States, and across Canada with universities and government agencies. He returned to COGS in 2000 taking up the position of Senior Research Scientist in the Applied Geomatics Research Group (AGRG). He retired from AGRG in 2011. Bob contributes to GoGeomatics through a regular monthly column on geography education.

One Response to “Opinion: Canada Doesn’t Have Too Many GIS Programs”

  1. Jeff Thurston


    Good perspective.
    For years and years Canada focused on the technology alone – many of us dreaded hearing ‘What is a GIS?’ over and over. It kept everthing in a state of immaturity and focused on data capture. Thus, GIS never really met the societal need question as it should have. GIS scientists propagated this by focusing on computational aspects as well.

    Having worked at the University of Alberta for decades, I can attest to the fact that GIS is implemented in terms of disciplines of research mostly. Those with high levels of disciplinary focused research understand the most about GIS by application.

    This is probably true in most institutions in Canada (and around the world). As a consequence, the ‘process and societal relationship of GIS’ is segregated from mainstream education. When those people leave, the knowledge walks out the door. Highly scientific research papers remain – which the public usually does not understand. And – in the worst cases, the whole experience repeats itself with similar studies repeated over and over.

    Your point is accurate. There is a need to understand how GIS connects processes through discplines and how they can be transferred into mainstream use.

    By comparison, look at the current trends with building information modeling (BIM) that are now using CAD to understand building processes and construction processes. The current trend for using GIS to design cities while admirable, is missing the mark because it is avoiding the understanding of urban process as compared to showing data in different options.
    Using city design as an example, one might reasonably wonder – what does GIS contribute to city planning processes and how does it do it? That would valuable to know in a societal sense.

    Excellent points. Thanks Robert.


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