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GIS education for a changed world

David Rhind
The City University, London, UK
[email protected]
GIS is potentially much more than a technology. Education in and for GIS now needs to be much wider than has hitherto been normal, if we are to gain the full potential available. Good technology – and the skills to use it – form a necessary condition for success but not a sufficient condition

The number of people knowingly using GIS must now be over 2 million. Many others use GIS capabilities without knowing – for example when looking for a hotel or ATM. The growth in numbers of users has been rapid in recent years: one easily measured indicator is the number of people attending big conferences. Fig 1 shows how the numbers attending the ESRI User Conference have grown over the last 12 years. Yet the numbers actually understate our success. GIS is now well established as part of standard tools of management across businesses and government activities. Decisions are made in these organisations, which affect the lives of millions of individuals. Applications like monitoring the continuity of electricity supplied, operating a cadastre or serving as the basis for planning underpin the way in which societies operate around the globe. For this author at least, this is all a cause of great satisfaction: GIS really can – in skilled hands – make a positive contribution to ensuring that society operates routinely in an effective and efficient manner. But it is not enough. With some important exceptions, the use of GIS at a strategic level is much rarer than at the operational one. How many ‘what if’ uses do we see, as compared to ‘what is where’ or ‘what has changed’ ones?

Making GIS more strategic
It seems to me that this comes about for several reasons. Sales revenues for software, hardware and data are more easily legitimated by the ‘often and routine’ rather than the ‘what might be’. In days gone by, modelling capabilities of GIS were also limited. And GIS education has been founded on the premise that GIS was a set of technologies with known – if expanding – sorts of applications.

The reality is that GIS is potentially much more than a technology. My colleagues and I have just completed re-writing our ‘Geographical Information Systems and Science’ textbook (or GISS2) and this has forced us to re-examine how the world of GIS has changed in the five years since we wrote the first edition and how it could change further.

We found that there are many ways of learning about GIS (see Table 1). We concluded however that such a greater contribution by GIS in future depends most on having users and beneficiaries with a range of skills, not just technical ones: they must understand the likely ramifications of GIS, how to cope with uncertainty, the legal aspects of GIS use, how these systems fit with the strategic objectives of their organisation, and much else. Indeed, we set out a menu of offerings, which we thought should be available from the educational process if we are to achieve the goal of maximising the utility of GIS:

  • Entrepreneurial skill development and leadership
  • The principles of Geographic Science
  • Understanding of and familiarity with GIS technologies
  • Understanding organizations
  • Finance, investment criteria and risk management
  • Human resources policies and practice and ethics relating to use of GIS
  • Legal constraints to local operations
  • Cultural differences between disciplines
  • Awareness of international differences in culture, legal practice and policy priorities
  • Formal management training, including staff development, team working using GIS, and presentational and analytic skills

Clearly not all courses and learning needs to include all of this material and some of it is not best learned from courses. Some elements will be particularly relevant to those engaged (as all professionals should be) in continuing professional development. The introduction of locally related legal, cultural and application-related elements to GIS courses – as well as buttressing the global technical, business and management issues – will be to the benefit of GIS practitioners, the discipline and business (used in a wide sense) alike.

Why is it important?
Given the success of GIS to date, some might question the need for radical changes to GIS education. For us, the reason this is needed is because GIS is not simply the geographical equivalent of word processing. It is a way of integrating information from different sources and doing so in a way, which is underpinned by good science. From this comes added value: the range of questions which can be addressed expands very rapidly as the number of data sets safely linked together is increased.

Used strategically, GIS can help us to understand why things happen as they do and take appropriate action. Examples of where this has proved invaluable are in military intelligence, in modelling the spread of diseases like West Nile Virus to understand how to combat them and in agricultural policy formation and monitoring of its success.

Perhaps the most striking and topical areas of greater potential for GIS are in helping to anticipate and respond to major natural disasters and in supporting ‘homeland security’ i.e. averting threats from those seeking to disrupt society. The Southeast Asia tsunami disaster and 9/11 in the USA emphasise the importance of making better strategic use of GIS.

We can think of five stages in any major disaster, natural or man-made. They are:

Risk assessment
This is identical in principle to all good business planning. It involves assessing the likelihood and possible impacts (on life, property, and other assets and the environment) of terrorist activity, an emergency, or disaster – and then communicating this to the appropriate local, national and (possibly) international authorities. It involves identifying risks (through collating and integrating knowledge, usually from many sources) and their potential impacts, which organizations should be involved and the necessary mitigation, response and recovery procedures – and testing the procedures.

Fig 1: esri annual user conference attendance
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