Challenges in Mainstreaming Geospatial Information

GW Prime has the stated aim of mainstreaming geospatial information. This is a welcome development but one which faces many challenges. Ways must be found to make the growing body of information being generated by geospatial specialists more understandable, available, and attractive to society in general as well as decision makers and the general public. This will help ensure that the considerable potential of the results of developments in the field can be more effectively applied to the major problems facing society in the 21st Century.

Geospatial specialists are primarily technologists and although they play considerable attention to applications, they rarely consider the communication challenges involved; perhaps this is because they consider these to be self-evident, which is not always the case. The best technical solutions are of limited value if they are not implemented, and effective communication is an important element in ensuring that this happens.

There are two major challenges involved: improving the semantics used in describing the geospatial field, and developing new strategic approaches to communicating geospatial information.

What do you get when you cross a geospatial specialist with a Mafia Don? The answer is an offer you do not understand! This old joke is just as relevant today as it has always been. The geospatial field is rife with jargon and this is increasing exponentially. There is general agreement that “Location Matters” and that “Everything Happens Somewhere”;  these are terms understandable to the general public and decision makers alike but when geospatial experts attempt to explain how and why these place-based concepts apply in detail rather than as generalized statements, effective communication tends to be a challenge. Central terms we use such as “Spatial Data Infrastructure” and the more recent “Integrated Geospatial Information Framework” have meaning to people in the field, but are not easily understood by people outside of the field. Nor is there general agreement in the field on the precise meaning of many terms. Already alternatives to “Integrated Geospatial Information Framework”, such as “Geospatial Knowledge Framework”, have been suggested; and the relationship between Spatial Data Infrastructure and Integrated Geospatial Information Framework is not clearly understood either.

Alternative definitions and overlaps

For many terms in the field, there are alternate definitions and terms and there is significant overlap among terms being used to describe very similar concepts. Debate and discussion over concepts and definitions and the introduction of new terms take up a large volume of exiting geospatial communication and discussion channels. Existing communication channels tend to be largely technical in nature, which is not surprising and by no means limited to the geospatial field. While this is understandable, it sometimes leads to a narrowing of the communications field and a tendency to “preach to the converted”.

There are numerous and expanding channels through which geospatial specialists communicate with each other, but these are largely invisible to society as a whole. If central messages such as “Location Matters” are to have the desired impact at societal levels, then the message must be transmitted in a more effective way through multiple channels, in addition to those currently in use, and in language that people understand.

It has been argued that geospatial is too important to be left only to the specialists and this argument has merit. Geospatial approaches have been of great importance in the current approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and in both technical and application terms, the value of such an approach has been exemplary. Decision makers are using the information provided by geospatial analysis in formulating policy responses, but the general public and the media are largely unaware of this important contribution. The geospatial community has been engaged primarily in describing the technical approaches being used, and several books and special issues of journals on these topics have already appeared, and more are planned, but almost without exception these responses are aimed at geospatial audiences.

Such approaches are of course important and valuable but must be complemented by new communication strategies which speak to a much wider audience.

This also applies to the important information being generated by the United Nations Expert Group on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM). Despite its title, this group continues to create information on wide range of geospatial topics. In August 2020, for example UN-GGIM released a major study Future Trends in Geospatial Information Management: The Five to Ten Year Vision.

The UN-GGIM plays a leading role in the development and promotion of global geospatial information and in addition to member states, has involvement by the private sector, academia, international societies and a variety of thematic based organizations in the geoinformation field. It also has linkages with other international organizations such as GEO. UN-GGIM is also working with standards organizations such as the Open Geospatial Consortium and is doing important work in the integration of Geo statistical information in cooperation with National Statistics Agencies.

UN-GGIM has now been in existence for ten years and has replaced the various UN Regional Cartographic Conferences which preceded it. UN-GGIM has regional groups in Asia-Pacific, Europe, The Americas and other regions, all of which are actively pursuing the UN-GGIM mandate. In the course of its work the organization and its subgroups continue to produce valuable studies which can be found on its website.

This information is unfortunately not easy to find as the target audience is the National Mapping Agencies of participating nation states; the societal importance of this works would be improved by a more effective communications strategy outside of the geospatial community.

If central messages such as “Location Matters” are to have the desired impact at societal levels, then the message must be transmitted in a more effective way through multiple channels, in addition to those currently in use, and in language that people understand.

Talk about the story, not the technology

Within the UN system there is competition for scarce fiscal resources and UN-GGIM is under-resourced, which limits its ability to spend time on new communications efforts. Much of this could be achieved by action at the national level but many of the National Mapping Agencies are more concerned with a technical approach and with the implementation of their central mandate.

Within the United Nations system increasing use of geospatial technologies in the challenges of meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals is accelerating, and there are excellent examples of the implementation of the new Integrated Geospatial Information Framework in developing nations. The case of nations such as Guyana and Fiji are both outstanding examples of this but are largely unknown outside of the specialists involved. There are important stories to be told here and could create the basis of a new communications strategy which goes beyond the approaches currently being used.

As nations develop the technical frameworks suggested for the implementation of their Integrated Geospatial Information Frameworks, they should include a strong communications strategy aimed at explaining in plain language examples which clearly illustrate the impact and value of a geospatial approach to the public. This might also be part of the subject matter of the new Geospatial Knowledge Centre being established by the Government of China as a contribution to UN-GGIM.

Story telling is a basic human instinct as is the process of mapping. The mapping process goes beyond the traditional way finding component, and thematic illustrations of stories which emphasize the societal implications are especially important in increasing public understanding. These stories can be told at all scales from the local, to the national, to the international. Geospatial specialists need to form new partnerships with both traditional media outlets and with the growing number of new social media platforms. New forms of multi-media and multi-sensory platforms such as Cybercartography can be helpful in enabling people to tell their own stories in ways which are more readily understandable than most contemporary approaches.

It is interesting to note that the Futures Document by the United Nations makes specific reference to such an approach. The launching of GW Prime is an important step in new communications directions.

Author Bio

Dr. D. R. Fraser Taylor is the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Professor and Director of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (GCRC), Geography and Environmental Studies, at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. A cartographer and award winner of international renown, his current research is focused on developing the field of Cybercartography, which he first defined in 1997, through an integrated program of theory, practice, technology and publication, with multiple global partners. He supervises postdoctoral and doctoral students, and has edited or co-edited 18 books.

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