The future of GIS in education and research (UCGIS, 2014)

While proud families and supportive friends watched the Reed College Class of 2014 officially transition to alumni, I headed to Pasadena for the 2014 UCGIS* conference. As folks chatted at pre-conference workshops** and the opening reception, I slowly realized that Reed was the lone liberal arts college in attendance. The conference was the big schools, the big names, and … me.

I will admit that it was a bit daunting to be at the proverbial big kids’ table, but it made for a very interesting week. While fellow attendees discussed their teaching and research, I imagined how the happenings of an institution teeming with graduate students and thousands of undergraduates might scale to a smaller liberal arts college. (Or in some cases, might not — I don’t see Reed catching up to NASA/JPL anytime soon…)

One of the functions of UCGIS is the publishing of the GIS&T Body of Knowledge (BoK) — a set of standards of what is relevant to geographic information science and technology. The biggest task facing the conference was to help revise the BoK, which was first published in 2006. Informed by input from the GIScience community (h/t UCGIS Past President Laxmi Ramasubramanian for her push for participatory methods), UCGIS attendees formed working groups to critically evaluate the BoK and bring suggestions for revision back to the larger group (about 100 people).

While we discussed topics important to GIS work itself (metadata, uncertainty, data collection/manipulation/storage), the clear passion around the table was positioning our schools, faculty, and students to be prepared for what lies ahead in the field of GIScience. One notable shift has been how distributed GIS has become across the curriculum; one of my table-mates described it as now “massively interdisciplinary.” This is certainly something I have seen at Reed, with asks for spatial work (from maps to analysis) spanning all of campus.

Another big change in the last near-decade is the ubiquity of maps. The increase in the availability of mapping technology has made most people daily map users. While this provides more people the tools to think spatially, it also may be somewhat problematic: a wind map of the US is stunning, yes. However, moving from aesthetic appreciation to “I can make that” — or even “I can critically evaluate that” is quite the jump.

At the end of our intense, day-long discussions our working groups were asked to summarize our work. My crew decided that in the “old” GIS paradigm, “the map was the outcome”; in the new paradigm, “the map is a stepping stone to doing something else — now the map is never done.” As educators and researchers, our task is to connect students with the necessary cross-cutting proficiencies (visualization technologies, data science, computation) so they can achieve their given outcome — be that storytelling (qualitative GIScience), decision support (ethical/legal applications) or hypothesis generation (asking and answering spatial questions).

For my part, I am excited to continue working to build these proficiencies in the Reed community — and continue working with this “massively interdisciplinary” topic across fields of study. Last year brought GIS lectures in economics and political science, a GIS mini-unit in the environmental studies seminar, and a well-attended spatially-focused Paideia course. I am excited to see where we head for the 2014-2015 school year (check back for updates, or contact me with inspirations).

* University Consortium for Geographic Information Science
** Before diving in to the BoK, I attended a half-day workshop on spatial analysis in R, which was fantastic, and worthy of its own post. Write-up forthcoming.

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