Social media and building geospatial bridges

July 7, 2011

Geospatial, Other

SOCIAL MEDIA seems to have a POLARIZING effect on people….

By Australian standards I made an early entry into social media – five years on LinkedIn, almost three years on Twitter – so I’ve been engaginging online with overseas colleagues for a long time. It’s good to see increasing numbers of my spatial colleagues joining LinkedIn and becoming more open. The level of engagement among Australian spatial people is still limited. Last year at the Spatial@gov conference in Canberra, attended by approximately 500 people, there were 11 of us using twitter to share links and ideas. This was the first time I had met some of these people (@ogc_steven, @ darkspatialLORD, @cathalsam , @neatstreets among others) and a year later we are still communicating regularly online. For some it’s a case of being uncomfortable with online privacy and negative media articles about Twitter or Facebook. For government people it is often fear and uncertainty about what is “allowed”, or access restrictions and firewalls. If you are a public sector employee in Australia I’d highly recommend following @craigthomler (Australian government)and @solutist (Victorian government)

Yes, there are perils in social media but this is not a good reason to ignore it. If used well these are wonderful tools. Facebook (now valued at $US100 billion) Twitter and Linkedin (each at US$8B), Google+ , Flickr and YouTube, and many others give free and unprecedented access to people and new ways of sharing information.

Note: This post was drawn from my Jun 2011presentation at the SSSI-YP Emerging Technologies Forum in Melbourne.

These are ‘interesting times’ for spatial…

and the some of the best conversations are happening through social media and the blog-sphere. Online engagement offers rich discourse, tools, examples, developments and opportunities for innovation, in topic areas such as neo-geography, crowd sourcing / volunteered geo-information (VGI), augmented reality, geo-tagging, open public sector information, cloud, Where2.0, semantic web, disruptive-technologies and open data & open standards.

Notwithstanding the social media opinion extremes (the deniers, egged on by mainstream media, and the evangelists, marketers and self-styled “social media experts”) , there are genuine, interesting people sharing experience and opportunities for exposure of the talents our industry has to offer. We should not turn a deaf ear to them, nor should we simply dismiss what users are saying…amongst other things, that Google Earth is “…one of the intellectual wonders of the modern world..” We can console ourselves with the map #Fails for now – here’s a genius bit of Map Fail from RT @davidcknight I did enjoy – but with the speed at which things are moving I would not be complacent.

Matt Ball, in a Jul 15 Article, discusses a move toward self-service GIS which I agree will bring a large degree of disruptions:

“GIS practitioners who have carved out a niche as data stewards and static product producers will need to rapidly evolve or be left behind. Organizations that don’t port their data and systems to more accessible and collaborative platforms could easily see their expertise bypassed by more nimble competitors.”


Whether you are a come down on the side of Google or that ‘authenticated Spatial Data Infrastructure’, our profession will change. Shifts are already underway:

  • Less emphasis on applying the technology, more on applying the data, to share information across boundaries and platforms. A key driver is the robust mobile / smartphone space /tablet space. Jack Dangermond from ESRI recently presented at a Where 2.0 Conference and spoke to how GIS is changing, a new kind af architecture emerging, a new infrastructure for a distributed environment.
  • The creativity (or sometimes plain lunacy) out there in app world is staggering. It is impossible to ignore the explosion of apps on Mobile geo-APIs. The data behind many apps has been enabled through crowdsourcing or “Neogeography”, defined in Wikipedia as The “[…] usage of geographical techniques and tools used for personal and community activities or for utilization by a non-expert group of users”

All is not lost, it will just be different

  • Behind the easy to use clients or viewers on browsers or cellphones is the requirement for very good base-maps and imagery to deliver meaningful or intriguing content about “where I am now” …this is a generation beyond becoming the Mayor of your cafe in Foursquare.
  • Even traditional news media are evolving in their use of social media. The days of the pin map seem quaint in comparison to the dynamic content being generated by combining search engines and information about place. Rich sources of data, including Twitter feeds & Flickr photo posts include more place related information into the continuous news stream.
  • What you may see as chaotic ‘noise’ in social media is, in totality, a wide range of perceptions about places and events: combined and using location as an organizer it is becoming meaningful real-time information. This is the real coming of age of informatics.

Why might Australian spatial people find value in engaging with online communities?

  • This is a period of disruption but also transformation, filled with opportunity and adventure.
  • One thing that social media and spatial have in common is that neither is the end itself, the end game is enhancing user experience around sharing information to help people to experience the world, to get the right things done.
  • The traditional ‘spatial’ marketplace is changing and so the skills requirements will also evolve. Even advanced skills can become largely redundant, except for the few who are creative in the
    application of those skills. Right now the fastest growing area according to ESRI is GIS Web Application Developers to build application solutions and online services. There will be increased automation and employers will want people with critical thinking skills to do value-adding jobs that technology can’t do. Five years from now there will undoubtedly be job titles that do not even exist today. Spatial professionals will need to be able to communicate well and to synthesize their experiences into a variety of roles.
  • Much of what spatial people do is a poorly understood Black Art. We speak a language of datums, projections, accuracy, infrastructures and sometimes obscure technical language. We understand and speak the language of precision surveying, technology and satellites, but are we active participants in the mobile user revolution?

The uptake of smart phones has yet to hit the tipping point in Australia and I suspect that there are things in our culture (reticence? cultural emphasis on privacy? tall poppy syndrome?) that have reduced online engagement. I’d suspect one factor delaying uptake is that our uptake of mobile platform has slowed by the cost of mobile data services and a pretty sad track record in the quality of service, not to mention the price gouging abuses from our Telcos. Nonetheless, these things will inevitably resolve, and (gasp) even Telstra is showing signs of improving.

Where do we fit as Spatial Professionals and how we will define ourselves in the future? The most important influence of real change, change that is societally meaningful, and rewarding, is social and cultural.

Our sector has expertise, both in the form of “explicit” and “tacit” knowledge. Explicit knowledge is easy to communicate, it can be written down, distributed, often automated. Tacit knowledge, however, is the often-hidden part, the things you may not even fully recognize you know, that involves learning and skill, but not in a way that can easily be written down. It is in the tacit knowledge where we should be applying ourselves as professionals, to work outside our sector to tackle the problems that face Australia and the world. Even advanced skills can become redundant, but not for those who are creative and exercise tacit knowledge in the application of those skills.

As expectations change from the public should we be seriously considering how we represent our selves? Do we genuinely engage or do we have a “ build it and they will come” mentality. Do we play nicely with others? We may argue for perfection but often things need to move more quickly. Do we share and build bridges to move things along, or do we baffle and delay with arcane practices or over-engineering?

Postscript: read this July 21 article by Jeff Thurston, How are surveyors impacted by Changing geospatial Technology? In which Jeff refers to an interview with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Karl-Friedrich Thöne, President of the German Society for Geodesy, Geoinformation and Land Management (DVW)

Jeff: “I was struck by his comments with respect to how he sees surveyors and their purpose….This perspective, with the emphasis on connecting to the economy and attempting to engage the public more fully toward the solution is amazingly refreshing. All too often I hear the surveying communities in other places talking about the need for regulations – seemingly to keep others out.”

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Postscript 2 check out these short presentations from Andy Coote:

More Andy Coote on NZ SDI & Geospatial Strategy


About yvonnert

Extensive experience working in government spatial data infrastructure. Over ten years as a bridge maker in emergency services, with strong partnering skills providing leadership for spatial information strategy.

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