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From V1: How Can We Communicate that Geospatial Technology Matters?

(March 2009) Perspectives Written by Matt Ball.

We need to do a better job as an industry educating decision makers about why geospatial technology matters. This was one of the main points that Anne Hale-Miglarese, principal at Booz Allen Hamilton and chair of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, made in her talk at the 75th ASPRS Annual Meeting. While the complaint is not new, this time it really struck me because we’re living in a time that requires strong actions, and GIS is essential to informing that action for maximum efficiency.

Despite years of advocacy and outreach, there’s still a disconnect between the capability and promise of geospatial technology, and the public’s perception. In these days of belt tightening, you may be hearing the suggestion from uninitiated executives to jettison GIS, and all our sophisticated data collection efforts, and just use Google Earth. As the current most visible face of the industry, the Google map environment does a good job of representing, with continuously updated content and a strong focus on the user experience. But Google is just an aggregator of maps and geographical information, and will never be a provider of professional applications.

We need to reinforce this distinction between maps and GIS loudly and clearly, and we must illustrate how much more can be done with geospatial technology. We need to show the benefits of investing to collect nationwide imagery, to map elevation and features more accurately, and to collect data in geospatial systems. It’s these enhanced activities, done by a legion of professionals, that provide the underpinnings for sophisticated solutions. But the public largely isn’t aware of these behind the scenes systems.

Global Change

The heightened awareness of global change provides an incredible platform for geospatial technology to make a difference, and to be recognized for its importance. Issues of energy and environment are central to global policy directions right now, and the geospatial toolset is increasingly important for this decision making. Topics such as renewable energy, smart grid, carbon cap and trade, climate warming, coastal impacts, water and food all are geospatial problems with some established solutions.

If you are working on applying GIS to any of these problems of global change, it’s time to become an advocate. Maybe you’re with a municipality that’s starting to consider climate change as it relates to water use or flooding implications or perhaps you’re with a utility that’s starting to consider Smart Grid planning or renewable energy integration. These topics resonate with the public right now, and it’s your duty to your profession to reach out to local media to show how geospatial technology is making a difference.

There’s too much news about impending doom to just sit back in our cubicles and remain anonymous. Let’s show the public that there are tools that are being applied to help us get a better handle on our complex problems.

Analyzing and Communicating

Directives from the Obama administration to make government more accountable and transparent in their actions could prove key for broader awareness of the role that geospatial technology plays. There’s no better tool available for analyzing, prioritizing and communicating policy directions than geospatial technology.

We’ve already seen one state stand up a website to map stimulus spending, and there will likely be more. With billions of dollars being spent in the United States, and trillions being spent globally, the location of projects that receive funding are of strong public interest. The public wants to know where this money is going and how the spending affects their lives. Beyond just a dynamic map, I’d love to see communication of 4D construction tools to illustrate project status and time to completion.

A good deal of work has been done on communicating geospatial ROI, with GITA’s methodology and worksheets and the recent book from ESRI Press. But I think we’re at a point now where in-depth exercises to justify technology spending won’t matter so much. The focus is on results, and the sooner the better.

In this time of great global change, when our society could greatly benefit from broader and deeper applications of geospatial technology, let’s highlight applications and solutions that are having impact. With greater public awareness, we can ride this time of action to realize more technology advancement.


Note: This column alternates weekly between Vector1 Media editors. Matt Ball is editor Americas/Asia Pacific for V1 Magazine and V1 Energy magazine.