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Challenge for the industry is brainware!

Prof. D. R. Fraser Taylor

Prof. D. R. Fraser Taylor
Distinguished Research Professor, Faculty of Geography and Environmental Studies
Carleton University, Canada

Q.GIS Dev: How did the concept of cyber cartography come up?
The idea of Cyber Cartography was introduced in 1997. I tend to think in terms of not just the little bits of pieces of our field like Web 2.0 or GIS or like any one of the other segments, but I am more interested in the over-arching theory and practice. And hence I use the term Cyber Cartography, in order to capture the essence of many changes that are going on in our field in a holistic fashion. One of the challenges in our field is that the technology has changed very rapidly and as a result the theory is well behind the technology and as a result the people are driven only by the technology and are searching for where it fits theoretically.

I am interested in a concept that doesn’t just include the technology but also the theory and also the practice as one combined effort.

Map is changing as an artefact as a result of the technology. Cyber Cartography extends the concept of mapping into subject areas that have never been mapped before, including socio-economic issues and thematic issues, like poverty, wealth and any concept you can think of. So when we combine combine all of these things you get Cyber Cartography and our main products are the Cyber Cartography atlases.

Q. Could you highlight on the product delivered under Cyber Cartography?
We are developing Cyber Cartographic atlases. We have developed Nunaliit, which is a new piece of open source software that provides an over arching framework for the development of these atlases. They, in turn, will provide an overarching framework into which different types of emerging social computing networks, such as Web 2.0, can fit in it.

So it becomes a framework in which some of these new users generated materials can be seamlessly integrated. We have evolved from the cartographer who supplied the information and the user got what was supplied, to the point where the user could draw things on demand, while interacting with the database or an information base. And now we are in the phase where there are no longer map creators and map users, because the user has become the map creator.

Cyber Cartography in an essence is an online subject, but Nunaliit, allows you to ren- 50 GIS der information in any format you want. You can print it out to the book, as a CD, you can choose which way you want the output of the information. Nunaliit is an Inuit word for community or settlement. Using this, people who have no knowledge of geographic information processing but who have access to a computer, can create their own maps with images of their own community.

I have always believed in the development from the bottom up as opposed to development top down. That’s how the buildings are constructed. The types of technologies we are creating will allow people to take control of situations. We are empowering people to do things on their own.

Q.Does Cyber Cartography have an Enterprise nature associated with it? How does it stand vis-a-vis emerging open source and interoperable GIS software?
If you think about it, enterprise- wide management is using location as the organizing principal and if you take that to its logical conclusion, then it permeates right through any organisation both in terms of how it organizes or analyzes and how it presents its information, which can be done in a variety of different way. It can be done internally for organisational purpose or it can be used for advertising purposes. But what you need is imagination and vision in order to create this. Many companies, for eg., the GIS bunch are three little people sitting back in a room, tugging away with digitizers and trying to tell people what to do, its not central, we have got to turn that around and make what we do central. And again I would argue that Cyber Cartography puts all of this locational information at the central.

Cyber cartography by definition is open source and we use the entire open source and open specifications. In order for Cyber Cartography to work our data has to be interoperable. But this challenge of interoperability which I think is one of the key challenges in our whole field is what we have and we are working on it. I also think that the challenge for industry is new partnerships; we have got to widen our vision of where the market lies.

Q. With the inference that GIS can’t be stand alone, should there be a fear of it losing its identity?
I think the problem of worrying about GIS’ identity is a form of unnecessary insecurity. If what you do is of value, then it never looses its identity. But if you think about the way science and knowledge, we have come full circle. We have to start looking at science in a much more holistic way.

We, over time, kept breaking science down into sub-disciplines; people became more and more specialised. But now we are beginning to move back to an understanding that unless you look at inter-relationships, we are going to miss something. I think GIS has important things to offer, but I differ from some of my colleagues, who want to see GIS as a pure science. Now I do not think that GIS looses its identity at all. But I do think that GIS has got to be part of the team, not isolated self in one particular little segment. Just think about what happened when Google Earth was out. Most people heard about it in three weeks than they have heard about GIS in three decades. The reason is that, the society demand was met in a way that individual people could use it without having to use a special intermediate. I don’t see anything as a threat to location based work, because location is now one of the key elements for the 21st century except the thing that is missing is the imagination of the people who are in the locational sciences. And that is what we hope through our Cyber cartography to provide some guidelines or avenues for people to think about.

Q.What is the status of Global Map project? What kind of content would it contain?
The concept of global map was introduced in response to Agenda 21 by United Nations where the idea was to create a 1:1 million map of world digitally on-line to respond to the needs to improve environment related decision making on the global scale. There are 8 data layers – 4 vector and 4 raster. They are Boundaries, Transportation, Drainage, Population Centres, Elevation, Vegetation, Land use and Land cover. The important thing about this one is the process by which the global map is created because each nation produces its own coverage and contributes. We help with capacity building when required through trainings and scholarships. Some nations do not have the coverage required but they can then use the existing global database, verify it, correct or modify it according to their use. There are many 1:1 million base maps available that we can also use. Many nations use it to extend into other layers which they are interested in and the global map in fact can form the framework for the NSDI (National Spatial Data Infrastructure) at a larger scale. We have recently released on-line 46.6% of world’s coverage in digital format.

Q.By what time will the Global Map be completed and made available for public use?
The initial target was the end of the year 2007, but we will probably have the release in February 2008 but how complete it would be remains to be seen. One of the problems with the Global Map is that when it was conceived in the 1990’s, insufficient attention was paid to the demand side. The demand has changed in terms of quality of data. But we are now changing our approach accordingly. The other challenge is of course outdated technology. The specifications on standards were used in the 1990’s have long been surpassed by GML and web services and we are facing the challenge of revising and upgrading the standards for using GML 3 as specific base for our work. But, I think the whole process by which it is created is more important than the product itself.

Q.Where do you see the geospatial industry in next ten years time?
Seeing the industry in a national and a global sense, I think that it is very much an era of location. The information is all linked and interoperable with the location. But there are many problems still to be tackled. One of them is the problem of semantics and interoperability within the area, I think here industry have been leading the academia and the government and not the other way around. The reason for the increase in importance of location based information is that it is now being industry-driven and it is quite interesting as the industry does not think in academic terms. But new partnerships are emerging in this field within academia and the industry. The challenges here are primarily not technical; it’s not the hardware or the software but it’s the brainware! We need a greater sense of interaction, less competition and more cooperation. Now industry, by definition, is competitive but you can compete and cooperate at the same time. I see that is the way forward for the future is to convey to the general public in the language they understand easily and communicate with them more effectively of what we do.