The geospatial profession

GI people come from all sorts of backgrounds, but we have one thing in common.  We’re passionate about what we do.  We are fascinated by it, and we want to share that passion with others.   But what makes a GI professional?   Typically, professions are focused on applying training, qualifications and experience on solving problems, and demand for a professional commences with a problem to solve.  If I want a house designing or building, if I have a health concern, have a legal challenge, need IT security or want a survey, I know who to go to.  It’s less clear when to call in a GI professional. Given the diverse origins of GI professionals and the almost boundless range of GI applications, we face the danger of being amorphous, a jack-of-all-trades. We also face the problem of being technology-led, where ‘given a hammer, everything’s a nail’.    In the remainder of this article, we’ll look at skills, business applications, innovation and finally, the world-view or ‘ontology’ of the GI professional.

‘Geography is about maps, but Biography is about chaps’ wrote Edmund Clerihew Bentley.  Maps are, inter alia, a form of information and so make a good starting point in our quest to define the GI profession.  Let’s start with the premise that anyone using GI is attempting to solve a problem.  What might the starting point be for bringing in the skills of the GI professional, and at what point are they no longer needed?  The Zachman Framework is helpful in defining this journey.    John Zachman was working for IBM when he developed the framework, and it was a breakthrough moment in realising that creating an IT-based solution (if we can include GI in that catch-all) is more similar to building a house, than following a sequential process. The artifacts typically produced in problem-solving, are actually addressing a matrix of needs (specifically, why, what, how, where, who and when) against different perspectives or viewpoints on how to meet those needs.  And whilst different skills are needed to build a house, they should, ideally, work together in an integrated manner.

zachman

(Adapted from Zachman)

The Zachman framework is incredibly useful, if you can look beyond the artifacts to the skills needed to create them.  It ensures that key issues are not overlooked (for example, addressing ‘why’ before ‘what’, and ‘what’ before ‘how’ – usually a good idea). It also gives some indication of the range of skills that are needed – for example, addressing business needs as opposed to detailing data or process.  An enterprise architect, in the world of IT, will have extensive knowledge, training and experience of most if not all of these areas.  A management consultant (depending on background) will tend to have greater depth of knowledge of needs, scope, concepts, processes and logic, focused on the business end.   What new cells do we need to add, for the GI professional, to differentiate them in terms of skills?

Continuing the theme of information management,  it’s worth looking at the British Computer Society’s SFIAPlus.  This is a different type of framework, that defines all the skill areas in the IT industry.  Assuming there is significant overlap between being a GI professional and information technology, can SFIA help us in our quest?  SFIA stands for Skills Framework for the Information Age.  It is very wide-ranging, as the name suggests.  It was developed to:

  • identify and benchmark skills to the industry standard
  • map current skills within an IT job role
  • identify career paths
  • plan training and development activities
  • achieve BCS Professional Development Accreditation

SFIA

SFIAplus also forms the basis of a range of online browser-based professional development products and services for both individuals and employers.  Divided into 6 categories and 19 sub-categories, it details 96 skills on the vertical axis and seven levels at which those skills can be attained (tasks) on the other.  Many tasks have a minimum seniority set against them, so in the example below,  ‘IT governance’ requires a minimum seniority of 5, meaning ‘ensure, advise’. For each of the 344 tasks you can view level and task descriptions, background, work activities, knowledge and skills,  training activities,  professional development activities and qualifications.

SFIA has been developed for the IT industry and encompasses all aspects of it, from strategy, through data, design, development, implementation, training, to maintenance & support, and governance.   With its central focus on information,   SFIA covers many of the skill areas of our elusive GI professional.  Could someone with a high SFIA score be able to perform as a GI professional?  If not, what additional skills and training would they need?   Conversely, would a GI professional necessarily score well on SFIA, and if so, what would be their strengths and weaknesses?  If we need additional skills adding to SFIA, what would they be? More importantly, what combination of skills and seniority are needed to take forward the GI industry, and make its mark against other professions?

GI can play a central role in just about any application area, whether it’s healthcare, transport, finance, utilities, marketing, agriculture, natural resources,  climatology or exploring other planets.  It’s a lot easier for a dentist to explain what they do, than a GI professional.   It’s still surprising to encounter entire government departments (for example) engaged in what would appear to be a highly geographic subject area, making little or no use of GI, not aware of what it can do for them analytically, and not just presentation.  In an ideal world, GI would be an essential part of core skills training such as statistics, so that it’s adoption became bottom-up rather than requiring a champion or evangelist GI professional having to re-educate and convince.  It’s possible to leave school with virtually no knowledge of geography or the principles of GI, and many of the application areas in which GI features do not see it as a core skill.  So at what point does someone in the transport industry, or planning, or working for a utility describe themselves as a GI professional?  Does the level of domain knowledge count?

Professions keep abreast of knowledge and innovation.   SFIA defines the investment in training and competences that is expected of different levels of seniority.  Should a GI professional not only be aware of innovation but also ensure that they invest in training and hands-on experience?  For example, not only reading about crowd-sourcing, or the latest mobile apps, or new, better ways of using GI in different application areas, but setting aside the time and cost to train and practice?  Should this be formalised and recorded in the same way as regulated professions do, such as the financial industry?  That may sound extreme, but if GI professionals want to be taken seriously, then surely they must be able to set out, concisely and clearly, what level of skill they are offering.  Part of that is having meaningful, standardised qualifications rather than a plethora of training courses with unstandardized content and certification.

Finally, does the GI professional see the world in a different way from other mortals?  Is there something special about understanding the ‘power of place’ that sets us apart?  Is that something we can scrutinise, measure and communicate to others?  For me personally, the answer is yes, GI professionals do see the world in a different way, aware of the interplay of complex factors over space and time, able to provide unique insights into complex data that would be almost impossible any other way.   In John Wyndham’s ‘The Kraken Wakes’, only the scientist Bocker (a geographer) can interpret all the signs of an impending alien invasion from the ocean deeps.  He was without doubt, a GI professional.   Only a passion for the subject would make a transport planner (for example), to start calling themselves a GI professional.   For me, that’s still too informal.  Passion for the subject doesn’t permit a doctor to call themselves a dentist.

Are we any closer to defining a GI professional?  We could, with some work, define the skills, based on SFIA.  We could use and adapt tools such as Zachman, to introduce more rigour and formality.  At some point, GI/GIS might be seen as mainstream analytical skills, and not to do with learning geography (not everyone loves it).   We might also recognise that the achievement of making GI and GIS become mainstream, will mean that there is a little GI Professional in everyone.  That would be a great result.

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