Giving time – randomised experiments on volunteering and citizen social science

As the event blurb explained  “the Giving Time experiments were led by a team from four UK universities, who wanted to know whether sharing information about how others have volunteered could help to improve volunteering… this was about giving time – and whether volunteers can be nudged. The methodology was randomised control trial (RCTs) in real-life field settings involving university student volunteers, Parish Councils, National Trust volunteers, and housing association residents.  The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).” The discussion of RCTs and Citizen Science in the same event was bound to generate interesting points.

In the first session, Prof Peter John (UCL) discussed The research challenges of large scale RCTs with volunteers and volunteering organisations. Peter covered the principles for Randomised Control Trials  (RCTs) – using randomness in trying something: assuming that two random groups will behave the same if you leave them alone, so you do things only to one group and observe the results. Start with baseline, random allocation to programme and control group, and then compare the outcome. Tying the outcomes to random allocation and – they are unbiased estimates of the impact of outcomes. Key distinguishing features of RCTs: need to deliver an intervention and the research at the same time. He suggests a 10 steps process – assessment of fit for RCTs, recruitment of partner organisations in which the work will be carried out, select a site, decide treatment, specify control, calculation of sample size, develop the procedure for random allocation, collection of data on the subjects, preparation of research plans, and assessment of ethical principles. The things can go wrong include: loss of subjects – people drop out along the way; failed randomization – deciding on who will be included in the process; treatment not given or modified; interference between treatment and control – when the groups meet; unavoidable confounds – when something come along in policy or media and policy change; poor quality data – what the data mean and what is going on with it; loss of cooperation with partners; and unexpected logistical challenges.
The Giving Time was the first RCTs on volunteering experiments – volunteering is more complex than giving money. The question is if behavioural methods can impact on the changes in the process. Working with the volunteering sector was challenging as they don’t have detailed records of volunteers that can be used to develop RCTs. There was willingness to participate in experiments and it was quite interesting to work with such organisations. There was a high level of attrition for those who are staying in the study – just getting volunteers to volunteer – from getting people to be interested until they do something. Is it possible to make it easier, get better quality data? RCTs required changes in organisational practices – if they are information based they are not hugely costly. It is possible to design trials to be sensitive to organisational practice and can be used quickly in decision making. There are issues with data protection and have a clear data sharing agreement.

Against this background, the second session Towards ‘Extreme Citizen Social Science’ – or volunteering as a tool for both social action and enquiry explored a contrasting approach. The session description already explored challenge: “For many, the scale of engagement with volunteers undertaken through Giving Time brings to mind related questions about the role of citizens in formal research – and then of course Citizen Science – or perhaps ‘Citizen Social Science’? At the same time we see the emergence of “Extreme Citizen Science” aimed at stimulating debate and challenging power relationships through citizen involvement in large scale scientific investigations. Extreme citizen science often starts from natural and physical sciences and has citizen researchers working with formal researchers to define the central research questions, and methods of investigation. But what is the potential for Extreme Citizen Social Science – characterised by being large scale, focused on social science questions, exploiting digital technology, having a high degree of participant control, and orientated towards influencing policy?”

Liz Richardson (Manchester Uni) gave her view on citizen social science approach. She is doing a lot of participatory research, and you need to explore with participants what is accepted to do with them. We can solve problems in a better way, if we have conversations on wide knowledge base in science – e.g. – a rough guide to spotting bad science. Liz compared her experience to early memories of the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch – the natural sciences version of citizen science, and part of it is access to back gardens and wide area research. She also reflected on her participation in Zooniverse and the confusion about what is the science there – e.g. why scientists ask which direction wildebeest look? There are different levels of engagement in citizen science classification, such as Haklay 2013 and a version in the book community research for participation – from low participation to high level. Citizen social science  – example for a basic one is the 2011 big class survey in the BBC – just giving and sharing information – more crowdsourcing. Another, more complex example is Christian Nold emotional maps when people responded to arousal measurement, part of evolution in visualising information and sharing mapping. The app MapLocal is used in local planning and sharing information by community members. Groups can also collect data and analyse it – they then work with social scientists how to make sense of data that they collected (work carried out with White Rock Trust in Hasting). It’s not research that done alone but integrated and leading to a change – it’s community consultation. An example is a game in Boston with Participatory Chinatown – and example for a community-led action research from the Morris Justice Project with support from academics.

I provided a presentation about extreme citizen science, positioning it within social science context (similar to my talk for the Institute for Global Prosperity) with some pointers to underlying social theory – especially that the approach that we take in contrast to some behaviour change approaches that take methodological individualism for granted.

Jemma Mouland (Family Mosaic) provided the provider point of view. Head of research at large social housing provider, with about 45,000 tenants. They have done project with Liz, and she explained it from provider point of view. Family Mosaic is looking at community involvement and decision making – what affect them in their daily life and where the housing provider come in? How to work more collaboratively with the residents. They run the a citizen science project around the meaning of community. They have done that through the Giving Time project – they sent email to recruit people to become citizen scientists – from 8000 people that received the message, 82 were interested, then 13 people were involved. They provided the material to carry out workshops, and didn’t instructed how to carry out the research – that led to 50 responses, although instructed to get at least 3, so some people moved beyond just 3. They also got the citizen scientists to analyse the data and the residents interpreted the data that they have gathered. The results from the survey – different definition of community, with active minority, and barriers include time and articulating the benefits (‘why should I do it?’). The residents felt that it was great, but they weren’t sure about doing it again – and also acting on behalf of the provider can be an issue, as well as feeling that all familiar contacts where used. The issue of skills is also interesting – gave very little information, and it can be effective to train people more. For Family Mosaic – the data was not ground breaking, but prove that collaboration can work and have a potential, it gave evident that it can work for the organisation.

So, *can* volunteers be nudged? Turning the spotlight on the future of Nudge techniques. Professor Gerry Stoker (Southampton Uni) The reasons for the lack of success of intervention was the use of the wrong tool and significant difference of money donation and time donation. Nudge come with a set of ideas – drawing on behavioural economics – we use short-cuts and tricks to make decision and we do what other do and then government followed it in a way to influence and work with people and change their behaviour. There are multiple doubts about nudge – nudge assumes fast thinking, but giving time is in slow thinking mode – donating money closer to type 1 (fast thinking) and volunteering closer to type 2 (slow thinking). Second, humans are not just cognitive misers – there are degrees of fast and slow thinking. Almost all nudging techniques are about compliance. Also it’s naive and overly promotional – and issues when the topic is controversial. The individual focus missed the social – changing people mind require persuasion. Complexity also make clear answers harder to find – internal and external validity, and there are very complex models of causality. There are ironic politics of nudge and experiments – allowed space only at the margins of policy making. Need to recognise that its a tool along other tools, and need to deal with groups side by side with other tools. Nudge is a combination with structural or institutional change, wider strategies of behaviour change, and not that other techniques are not without their own problems and issues

Discussion – need to have methodologies that are responsive to the local situation and context. A question is how do you nudge communities and not work at the individual level.

The final talk before the panel discussion was Volunteers will save us – volunteering as a panacea. Presenter: Dr Justin Davis-Smith (National Council for Voluntary Orgs) State of volunteering in 2015 – volunteering can lead to allow social transformations – e.g. ex-offenders being released to volunteering roles and that help avoiding offending. Another success is to involve people who are far from the job market to get employable skills through volunteering. Volunteering also shown that volunteers have better mental health and wellbeing. Not volunteering has a negative impact on your wellbeing. There are volunteering that can be based on prescription (e.g. Green Gyms). Volunteers are engaged in public services, such as special constables. Social capital is also improved through volunteering. Replacement value £40Bn, and the other impacts of volunteering are not being quantified so the full value is estimated at £200Bn. So volunteer will save us?
However, volunteering is cost effective but not without cost and require investment, which is difficult to make. The discussion about engagement of volunteers in public service put the volunteers against paid labour, instead of co-production. There are also unhealthy dynamic with paid staff if it only seen as cost-saving measure. We have a small core that provide their volunteering effort, and the vast majority of volunteering is made by a small group (work on civic core by the centre for third sector research was mentioned). The search for the panacea is therefore complex. Over effort of 15 years in different forms of volunteering, there is only 5% change in the amount people report about volunteering. Some of the nudge mechanisms didn’t work – there is a lot of evidence to show that campaign on volunteering don’t work well. People react negatively to campaigns. Barrier for volunteering is lack of time, and concerned that getting involved will demand more and more of their time. Reflecting on time constraints and micro-volunteering can work.

The final panel explored issues of co-production of research and the opportunities to work with volunteering organisations to start the process – many social services providers do want to have access to research but find it difficult to start the process.

UCL Fossil Fuel Divestment debate

UCL organised a debate about fossil fuel divestment, with 7 knowledgeable speakers (all professors), raising argument for and against the suggestion that UCL should divest from fossil fuels and sell its £21million invested in the industry. In the room and on the panel there were more people who supported the motion than those who opposed it. Interestingly, at the end of the discussion more people switched to support divestment. I took notes of the positions and what people mentioned as a way to map the different views that were expressed. So here are my notes, the tl;dr point of each argument and something about my view at the end of this longish post.

Anthony Costello opened the debate and discuss that research from UCL provided evidence to justify the Guardian ‘keep it in the ground‘ campaign. The aim of the debate is to explore different views and see what the general views of the people who attended it.

Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet opened with some comments officially Chaired the debate – there is a movement around divestment from fossil fuel that is very rapidly growing across society and different places. Universities are special in their role in society – they are creator of knowledge about public policy issues, but they are also a moral space within society, where position can be taken. Some of UK universities decided to divest – Glasgow, SOAS. Other university didn’t decide – e.g. Oxford. It is appropriate to ask what UCL should do, it is leading on considering the impacts of climate change on society at large – e.g. risk to health?

Chris Rapley, opened with nothing that we are the first humans to breath at 400ppm of CO in the atmosphere as a basic composition  – it is above the levels for the last 800,000 years. 40% rise is the same increment between ice age and interglacial age. The change is taking place 100 times faster than anything natural. The conclusion is that it is unwise to increase above 2C from pre-industrial levels, and we have very little left to burn. 80% of coal and 50% of oil are unburnable – we don’t have a solution for carbon capture and storage yet. The first reason to divest is that it’s prudent – it’s the energy of the past, and renewable are the future. The valuations are a bubble so it is best to put the money elsewhere. second point, we need to be put on a trajectory away from fossil fuel by this December – and lot of issues play out in Paris will not be ratified until 2020. We need to connect the trajectory that we are currently on and the future one, so we do it properly. The CEOs of BP and Shell suggested business as usual, and the recent budget gave 1.2 billion to North Sea oil, so the government is not following its own statement. UCL as radical thinker need to do a gesture in the right direction. We are all part of a web of carbon intensive world, and we need to manage the transition.

My TL;DR Rapley: Science is showing the need combined with need to change trajectory 

Jane Holder argued for divestment from the point of view of a teacher of environmental law. The meaning for teaching and learning – the movement that has gone on for the past 20 and more years to increase environmental education at university level. Helping students to deal with contested knowledge, uncertainty and environmental issues. UCL has done a lot of work over the years – changes to the estate and the curriculum, from this perspective, the UCL campaign make a connection between the estate, curriculum and its finance. There is linkages between environmental education and the learning and teaching of UCL. Significance of informal curriculum – the intangible way in which institution instil values in students – there is publicness of university building and the way it treat staff. Secondly, there are broader changes in university – in terms of education, students explained that since tuition fees, the student is viewed as a consumer, and not citizens of the university community. The divestment campaign allow students to act as citizens and not consumer. University is a site for environmental activity and the roles should be combined.

My TL;DR Holder: teaching and learning imperatives and finance is part of it. 

Anthony Finkelstein argued, this is not question of expertise, starting point that accepting the need to change – but expect to see change in energy sources happening with technological advances. The speed and extent of change is complex feedback systems. Generally, he adopts a precautionary view. However, fossil fuel will be part of our future because of their properties – we need to deal with consumption and not production. Consumption is within a political context and the condemnation of fossil fuel is about political failure. UCL should invest according to regulatory aspects. Ownership of asset can be used to exert influence, the concern is about research and UCL strategy – it’s hypocritical to use money from fossil fuel companies for research, but not to invest in them – it sends the wrong message. A lot of research in engineering is supported by fossil fuel companies – also raise the issue of academic freedom. It is not right to ask or to question ethics of people you disagree with. (see the full argument on Anthony’s blog)

My TL;DR Finkelstein: deal with consumption and not production, we are using a lot of funding from fossil fuel companies and there is a risk to academic freedom. 

Hugh Montgomery – fossil fuel helped humanity, but it need to stop. Energy gain to the planet is equivalent to 5 Hiroshima bombs a second. 7% will stay 100,000 years. Health impacts will be in all sort of directions – and these concern also among military bodies, or the WHO. Not only from ‘extreme left wing’ organisations. Even to reach 2C we have 27 years or even more like 19 years – if we are to act, we have to keep 2/3 of fossil fuel in the ground. There is over-exposure to stranded assets. Why divestment? it’s not ‘rabid anti-capitalist agenda’ – we should change market forces. The aim of the divestment is to force fossil fuel companies to go through transformative change. UCL should do what is right, not only the amount of money, but as a statement. The stigmatisation will be significant to fossil fuel companies.

My TL;DR Montgomery: it’s not only left wing politics, even if you are fairly conservative in outlook, this make sense. 

Jane Rendell – stated that she concerned about the environment and stood down from the Bartlett research vice-dean position because of BHP Billiton funding. Leading on ethics and the built environment in the Bartlett. From her view, investment in fossil fuel is not compatible with UCL research strategy of dealing with judicious application of knowledge to improve humanity. The investment is incompatible with its own ethical guidelines and its environmental strategy. It’s also incompatible with UCL research itself about the need to leave fossil fuel in the ground. The most profound change will come from breaking down practices of finance – it’s not acceptable for fund manager to hide behind claims to ignore their responsibility to everyone else. The only argument is for shareholder engagement, and there is no evidence for it – as well as Porritt declared recently about the uselessness of engagement.

My TL;DR Rendell: incompatibility with UCL policies, and there is no point in engagement. 

Alan Penn – Universities should concentrate in their place in society – relatively new institutions and important in generation of knowledge and passing it to future generation. The ability to critically question the world. We are all invested in this companies – we benefiting from tax from North Sea oil, pension funds. Arguing that money is just transactional property and therefore doesn’t hold value. Arguing that people should invest and force companies to change through engagement.

My TL;DR Penn: don’t mix money with values, and if you want change, buy controlling stake in shares.

After the discussion (with Anthony Finkelstein having to defend his position more than anyone else), there was more support for divestment, although most of the room started from that point of view.

Finally, my view – I’ve started my university studies in October 1991, and as I was getting interested in environment and society issues in my second year of combined Computer Science and Geography degree, the Earth Summit in Rio (June 1992) was all the rage. The people who taught me have been in the summit – that also explains how I got interested in Principle 10 of the Rio declaration which is central to my work. This biographical note is to point that Earth Summit was also the starting point for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which opens with

The Parties to this Convention,
Acknowledging that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind,
Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind …

So for the past 23 years, I’ve been watching from the sidelines how the decision makers are just not getting to the heart of the matter, nor acting although they are told about the urgency. The science was clear then. If the actions of government and industries started in 1992 we could have all been well on the route for sustainability (at least in energy consumption). It was absolutely clear that the necessary technologies are already around. I therefore find the argument of shareholders engagement as unrealistic at this stage, nor do I see the link between investment, where you don’t have control over the actions of the company, and careful decision on which research project to carry out in collaboration and under which conditions. This why I have supported the call to UCL to divest.


I still need to find the time to write the academic paper to follow my blog post about the role of my research area in fossil fuel exploration

nQuire-it/Sense-it – discovering sensors in your phone

Sense-it Light sensor Sense-it Sound
The Open University, with support from Nominet Trust and UTC Sheffield have launched  the website, which seem to have a great potential for running citizen science activities. The nQuire platform allows participants to create science inquiry ‘missions’. It is accompanied by an Android app called Sense-it that exposed all the sensors that are integrated in a smartphone and let you see what they are doing and the values that they are showing.

The process of setting up a project on the nQuire-it site is fairly quick and you can figure it out in few clicks. Then, joining the project that you’ve created on the phone is also fairly simple, and the integration with Google, Facebook and Twitter accounts mean that linking the profiles is quick. Then you can get few friends to start using it, and the Sense-it app let you collect the data and then share it with other participants in the project on the nQuire website. Then participants can comment on the data, ask questions about how it was produced and up or down vote it. All these make nQuire a very suitable place for experimentation with sensors in smartphones and prototyping citizen science activities. It also provides an option for recording geographic location, and it good to see that it’s disabled by default, so the project designer need to actively switch it on.

The value of “analog” user experience

I’ve been using 37Signals’ Basecamp now for over 5 years. I’m involved in many projects with people from multiple departments and organisations. In the first large project that I run in 2007 – Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities – Basecamp was recommended to us by Nick Black (just before he co-founded CloudMade), so we’ve started using it. Since then, it was used for 33 projects and activities which range from coordinating writing an academic paper to running a large multidisciplinary group. In some projects it was used a lot in other it didn’t work as well. As with any other information system, the use of it depends on needs and habits of different users and not only on the tool itself.

It is generally an excellent tool to organise messages, information and documents about projects and activities and act well as a repository of project related information – but project management software is not what this post is about.

I’m sure that in the scheme of things, we are a fairly small users of Basecamp. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised to receive a card from 37Signals. 
I’m fairly passive user of Basecamp as far as 37Signals are concerned – I’m please with what it does, but I have not contacted them with requests or anything like that. So getting this hand-written card was a very nice touch from a company that could very easily wrote the code to send me an email with the same information – but that wouldn’t be the same in terms of emotional impact.

As Sherry Turkle is noting in her recent book, the human contact is valuable and appreciated. This is important and lots of times undervalued aspect of communication and interaction – the analog channels are there and can be very effective. This blog post – and praising 37Signals for making this small effort, is an example of why it is worth doing it.

Geographical Citizen Science

The London Citizen Cyberscience Summit in early September was a stimulating event, which brought together a group of people with an interest in this area. A report from the event, with a very good description of the presentations, including a reflection piece, is available on the ‘Strange Attractor’ blog.

During the summit, I discussed the aspects of ‘Extreme’ Citizen Science, where we move from usual science to participatory research. The presentation was partly based on a paper that I wrote and that I presented during the workshop on the value of Volunteered Geographical Information in advancing science, which was run as part of the GIScience 2010 conference towards the middle of September. Details about the workshop are available on the workshop’s website including a set of interesting position papers.

The presentation below covers the topics that I discussed in both workshops. Here, I provide a brief synopsis for the presentation, as it is somewhat different from the paper.

In the talk, I started by highlighting that by using different terminologies we can notice different facets of the practice of crowd data collection (VGI within the GIScience community, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping …).

The first way in which we can understand this information is in the context of Web 2.0 applications. These applications can be non-spatial (such as Wikipedia or Twitter), or implicitly spatial (such as Flickr – you need to be in a location before you can capture a photograph), or explicitly spatial , in applications that are about collecting geographical information – for example OpenStreetMap. When looking at VGI from the perspective of Web 2.0 it’s possible to identify the specific reasons that it emerged and how other similar applications influence its structure and practices.

The second way to view this information is as part of geographical information produced by companies who need mapping information (such as Google or TomTom). In this case, you notice that it’s about reducing the costs of labour and the need for active or passive involvement of the person who carries out the mapping.

The third, and arguably new way to view VGI is as part of Citizen Science. These activities have been going for a long time in ornithology and in meteorology. However, there are new forms of Citizen Science that rely on ICT – such as movement-activated cameras (slide 11 on the left) that are left near animal trails and are operated by volunteers, or a network of accelerometers that form a global earthquake monitoring network. Not all Citizen Science is spatial, and there are very effective examples, especially in the area of Citizen Cyberscience. So in this framing of VGI we can pay special attention to the collection of scientific information. Importantly, as in the case of spatial application, some volunteers become experts, such as Hanny van Arkel who has discovered a type of galaxy in Galaxy Zoo.

Slides 16-17 show the distribution of crowdsourced images, and emphasise the spatial distribution of information near population centres and tourist attractions. Slides 19-25 show the analysis of the data that was collected by OpenStreetMap volunteers and highlight bias towards highly populated and affluent areas.

Citizen Science is not just about the data collections. There are also cultural problems regarding the trustworthiness of the data, but slides 28-30 show that the data is self-improving as more volunteers engage in the process (in this case, mapping in OpenStreetMap). On that basis, I do question the assumption about trustworthiness of volunteers and the need to change the way we think about projects. There are emerging examples of such Citizen Science where the engagement of participants is at a higher level. For example, noise mapping activities that a community near London City Airport carried out (slides 34-39) which shows that people can engage in science and are well placed when there are opportunities, such as the ash cloud in April 2010, to collect ‘background’ noise. This is not possible without the help of communities.
Finally, slides 40 and 41 demonstrate that it is possible to engage non-literate users in environmental data collection.

So in summary, a limitless Citizen Science is possible – we need to create the tool for it and understand how to run such projects, as well study them.

Computers and the Renaissance of Cartography (1976)

While sorting out our departmental GIS library, I came across a small booklet titled Computers and the Renaissance of Cartography from 1976. It was written by Dr Tom Margerison, the first editor of New Scientist, and describes the activities of the Experimental Cartography Unit (ECU), which pioneered the use of computers for geographical and cartographical applications. Though Prof. David Rhind told me that the description should be taken with a pinch of salt, and that there are alternative accounts.

Interestingly, the ECU operated within the Royal College of Art to encourage new designs and innovations in map making. It was established in 1967 and operated until the late 1980s.
The booklet provides a description of the main processes of assembling maps at the ECU in the middle of the 1970s, and what is especially interesting is to see some amazing outputs of maps from that time, which, unlike the typical crude output of Symap, are beautiful and clear.
I have asked Dan Lewis, who was involved in the digitising of the CATMOG catalogue of booklets about quantitative methods in geography, to turn this booklet into PDF format so we can share it. Dan put some of the maps on his blog .

If you want to download the booklet – it is now available here.

Today is a good day to publish this booklet, following the announcement that Prof. Peter Woodsford, who was among the founders of Laser-Scan (now 1Spatial), received an MBE for his services to the geographic information industry in the Queen’s birthday honours list, and it was the equipment of Laser-Scan that enabled the creation of these maps.

The end of the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era

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.