‘UNIGIS changing the landscape of geo-informatics’

‘UNIGIS changing the landscape of geo-informatics’

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One of the basic barriers for the growth of geospatial industry growth is lack of awareness and shortage of human resources potential.
Prof Josef Strobl
Director UNIGIS, Salzburg University, Austria

One of the basic barriers for the growth of geospatial industry growth is lack of awareness and shortage of human resources potential. What is UNIGIS doing to address these concerns?
Without giving a reference, I would like to take note of a paper I have written a few months ago which talked about looking into the future and being aware. Interestingly, not only in the Western world like in the US and Europe, I am surprised to learn that even in India, which is recognised as a big IT school from a certain point of view, GIS industry faces a strong lack of qualified professionals. In the paper, I am trying to approach this with a three-tiered view. One is the general education requirements vis-à-vis schools because that defines the market. If people cannot read maps, they will not buy maps. If people can’t make sense of GPS, then GPS in navigation will not be useful to them. So, we need to focus on the general educational awareness. This is the reason why we are strongly involved in continuation of teacher education.

The second one is about the professional population across all disciplines where geospatial information is of value or necessary. We talk about resources industry, utilities, business geographics, about security and development. All of them are not GIS experts. Some of them will be GIS experts and some of them will become geospatially competent professionals. Someone like a resource manager or a marketing person. This education should actually happen in the business school in school of environmental management and development. In the third tier, we talk about real technical people, most of them in computer science or related technologies. There we have not yet been able to come up with strong education and research. The level of complexity of technology is going up and the trend is moving from application to architecture. And to manage an architecture, we need more systems thinking. Few people from geography or some other applied disciplines move into technology focus. So they consider themselves foremost to a technologist or a computer science person. I think this is the strongest weakness.

Coming to the other part of your question, I should say we are not quite there yet because the main audience for UNIGIS worldwide is applications people. We work with people who have a first degree education in an application discipline and then combine that with technical, conceptual, methodological education to be able to work and function as a GIS expert in their respective spatial disciplines. What we are currently not doing is focussing on the technology education because it will change the overall view and model of UNIGIS a bit. But I have to admit that the main driver is to think on these lines and develop additional concepts that are going to depend on the current concepts which are currently coming out from India and to a smaller degree from China, where people have stronger technology focus. So, yes, it might be that subsidisation will lead not to a change in UNIGIS programme but may be to the opening of an additional track which is a blessing for people with technology focus but not with an application focus.

Do you think there is role for industry in disseminating GIS knowledge?
Surely, it is not the primary role. Because the primary role of industry is to work within economic relatives, to earn money which has been invested and to be economically successful in its practise. In industry, there are difficulties and some of them can be alleviated by supporting GI science and education. So, it is not directly the role of dissemination of knowledge but pushing the academia, making us aware of the industry demands and of course helping. Here, helping means lowering the hurdles for learning institutions, financial hurdles in terms of sponsorships which are often given, support in terms of software and hardware development. I do not consider the spreading of GI science as the primary role of the industry but they should provide push for institutions to do it. When I say pushing, it means not pushing forward but pushing in particular direction. Within a range of learning media curriculum development project, we have been working with advisory boards of industry. Now we are considering setting up of an advisory board as a continuous institution to pick up inputs from industry.

You have listed out the trends, sorted out what are the issues before the industry in terms of human resource potential. What are the efforts of UNI GIS to meet these challenges?
Our focus is primarily on the second tier of education and we acknowledge all kinds of changes. We expose students to new ideas by different means, not only to change curricula but we try to convey to students new ideas by way of publications, presentations etc. We invite people to talk, put their presentations online for students to work with. In that sense we are building awareness, changing the landscape in geo-informatics. The other two brackets I mentioned before, general awareness and teacher-school-pupils is something we do but the strong emphasis on technology and as I mentioned is something that we currently consider but we haven’t operationally moved into this area.