The discussion about the future of the GIS ‘profession’ has flared up in recent days – see the comments from Sean Gorman, Steven Feldman (well, citing me) and Don Meltz among others. My personal perspective is about the educational aspect of this debate.

I’ve been teaching GIS since 1995, and been involved in the MSc in GIS at UCL since 1998 – teaching on it since 2001. Around 1994 I was contemplating the excellent MSc in GIS programme in Edinburgh, though I opted to continue with my own mix of geography and computer science, which turned out to be great in the end – but I can say that I have been following the trends in GIS education for quite a while.

Based on this experience, I would argue that the motivation for studying an MSc in GIS over the past 20 years was to get the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’. I use ARC/INFO as a metaphor – you can replace it with any other package, but ARC/INFO was the de facto package for teaching GIS (and its predecessor ArcGIS is today), so it is suitable shorthand. What I mean by that is that for a long time GIS packages were hard to use and required a significant amount of training in order to operate successfully. Even if a fairly simple map was needed, the level of technical knowledge and the number of steps required were quite significant. So employers, who mostly wanted someone who could make them maps, recruited people who gained skills in operating the complex packages that allow the production of maps.

The ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era included an interesting dissonance – the universities were telling themselves that they were teaching the principles of GIScience but the students were mostly interested in learning how to operate a GIS at a proficient level to get a job. I’ve seen and talked with enough students to recognise that many of them, in their daily jobs, rarely used the spatial statistical analysis that we were teaching and they mostly worked at ‘taming the beast’, which GIS was.

As expected, at UCL there was always a group that was especially interested in the principles of GIScience and that continued their studies beyond the MSc. But they are never the majority of the cohort.

The model worked well for everyone – universities were teaching GIS by a combination of principles and training of specific packages and the students found jobs at the end and joined GIS departments in different organisations.

The disruption that changed this arrangement started in the late 1990s, with Oracle Spatial starting to show that GIS can be integrated in mainstream products. The whole process accelerated around 2005 with the emergence of GeoWeb, Free and Open Source GIS (FOSS GIS) and the whole range of applications that come with it. Basically, you don’t need a licence any more. More and more employers (even GIS consultancies) are not recruiting from GIS education programmes – they are taking computing professionals and teaching them the GIS skills. Going through an MSc in GIS to be proficient with a tool is not necessary.

So in an era in which you don’t need a licence to join the party, what is the MSc in GIS for?

The answer is that it can be the time when you focus on principles and on improving specific skills. Personally, that was my route to education. I started working in GIS software development without much more than high school education in 1988. After hearing people around me talking about registers, bugs, polygons and databases I was convinced that I must understand these principles properly. So I went for a degree that provided me with the knowledge. In the same way, I would expect that MSc programmes cater for the needs of people who gain some practical experience with operating geospatial technologies and want to learn the principles or become specialists in specific aspects of these systems.

We already see people doing the MSc while working with GIS – currently studying an MSc by distance learning or in the evening is very popular and I expect that this will continue. However, the definition of what is covered by GIS must be extended – it should include everything from Bing Maps API to PostGIS to ArcGIS.

I can also see the need for specialised courses – maybe to focus on the technical development of geospatial technologies or maybe on spatial statistical analysis for those who want to become geographical information analysts. I would also expect much more integration of GIS with other fields of study where it is taught as a tool – just look at the many MSc programmes that currently include GIS. I’m already finding myself teaching students of urban design, development planning or asset management.
All in all, I’m not going to feel sorry that the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era is coming to its end.

UPDATE: a more detailed version of this post appeared in Cartographica, and can be accessed here or email me to receive a copy.

While Google wasn’t the first website to implement slippy maps – maps that are based on tiles, download progressively and allow fairly smooth user interaction – it does deserve the credit for popularising them. The first version of Google Maps was a giant leap in terms of public web mapping applications, as described in our paper about Web Mapping 2.0.

In terms of usability, the slippy map increased the affordability of the map with direct manipulation functionality for panning, clear zoom operating through predefined scales, the use of as much screen assets for the map as possible, and the iconic and simple search box at the top. Though the search wasn’t perfect (see the post about the British Museum test), overall it offered a huge improvement in usability. It is not surprising that it became the most popular web mapping site and the principles of the slippy map are the de facto standard for web mapping interaction.

However, in recent months I couldn’t avoid noticing that the quality of the interface has deteriorated. In an effort to cram more and more functionality (such as the visualisation of the terrain, pictures, or StreetView), ease of use has been scarificed. For example, StreetView uses the icon of a person on top of the zoom scale, which the user is supposed to drag and drop on the map. It is the only such object on the interface, and appears on the zoom scale regardless of whether it is relevant or available. When you see the whole of the UK for example, you are surely not interested in StreetView, and if you are zooming to a place that wasn’t surveyed, the icon greys out after a while. There is some blue tinge to indicate where there is some coverage, but the whole interaction with it is very confusing. It’s not difficult to learn, though.

Even more annoying is that when you zoom to street level on the map, it switches automatically to StreetView, which I found distracting and disorientating.

There are similar issues with Google Earth – compare versions 4 and 5 in terms of ease of use for novice users, and my guess is that most of them will find 4 easier to use. The navigation both above the surface and at surface level is anything but intuitive in version 5. While in version 4 it was clear how to tilt the map, this is not the case in 5.

So maybe I should qualify what I wrote previously. There seems to be a range here, so it is not universally correct to say that the new generation of geographical applications are very usable just because they belong to the class of ‘neogeography’. Maybe, as ‘neogeography’ providers are getting more experienced, they are falling into the trap of adding functionality for the sake of it, and are slowly, but surely, destroying the advantages of their easy-to-use interfaces… I hope not!

Geographical Information Science Research UK (GISRUK) is a research conference that has been taking place in different university campuses around the UK (and once in Ireland) since 1993. Despite the name, it is open not just to researchers from the UK, but also to international participants, who are very welcome.

For me, GISRUK was the first international conference in which I presented a paper eleven years ago, so I have a soft spot for it. It was very friendly and welcoming for a starting research student (which I was at the time). It was especially useful to discover that all the famous academics who attended it were friendly and open to questions.

The conference will be held at UCL in April 2010, and the call for papers is now out, so consider submitting a paper.

The papers are rather short, about 1500 words, so there is plenty of time to write one in time for the deadline of the end of November.

At the end of September, the manuscript of ‘Interacting with Geospatial Technologies’ was submitted to John Wiley & Sons. This is the reason for the silence on this blog since July while the final chapters were written.

The book, which is an introduction to usability and Human-Computer Interaction aspects of GIS and other geospatial technologies, was written because there is no other recent book that covers these aspects while taking into account the special characteristics of geographical information and the extensive use of maps.

There were several books in the early 1990s dedicated to human factors of GIS or to cognitive aspects of these systems. Since then, there have been many published articles, but no easy-to-access summary of the outcomes in a way that is useful for developers or people who want to understand how to design more usable systems. So, while working on a paper that called for developing ‘usability engineering for GIS’ in 2005, I figured out that, actually, it was time to write an introductory text in this area. In the end, this is an edited textbook written by me together with a group of excellent collaborators: Jochen Albrecht, Clare Davies, Catherine Emma Jones, Robert Laurini, Chao Li, Aaron M. Marcus, Stephanie L. Marsh, Annu-Maaria Nivala, Artemis Skarlatidou, Carolina Tobón, Jessica Wardlaw and Antigoni Zafiri.

So the book provides an introduction to user-centred design and usability engineering from a geospatial technologies perspective, theoretical aspects of human understanding of space and collaborative systems, practical aspects of cartography and map design that are useful for developers and application designers, guidance for evaluating geospatial systems and some tips for designing desktop, Web and mobile based systems. Each chapter includes case studies and examples that make the material more concrete.

The book is scheduled to be out by March 2010. A lot of work went into writing the various chapters and ensuring that the content is covering all the needed elements to create a usable GIS – I hope that it will be useful!


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