So where are the GI Scientists

Last week I attended and spoke at the annual EMEA Google Faculty Summit at the Google offices in Zurich. The event brings together researchers and academic staff for a few days to present their work, talk to Google Engineers and for Google and academia to work together to developer common research interests. Most of the academics present were from a Computer Science departments, some specialising in privacy and policy as well as those interested in software engineering and natural language processing a subject core to Google’s success.

Also core to Google’s success is the exploitation of geospatial technology, yet there were no academics from the GIS community present.

Perhaps this is due to the focus on computer science, but  then I have always believed that GIS needs to become closer to CS as the use of geospatial technology becomes more mainstream.

There is I think a need for a debate as to where  the focus on GIS research and as a result GIS teaching is directed. Clearly there is a value in training people to apply GIS to applications in other fields of study, but where does the fundamental research geospatial technology take place ? And related to this point, to what extent does the GIS community interact with the broader Computer Science discipline ?

So if you are part of the academic geospatial community, take a look at the Google University resources here, perhaps you can make the event next year ?

Written and submitted from the Geospatial Middle East Conference 2011, Abu Dhabi (24.41N, 54.48w)

10 replies on “So where are the GI Scientists”

I know reasonably well what’s going on in GIScience yet had not heard of this event at all. The geo dept of the university of Zürich keeps a fairly comprehensive calendar of events in the field, maybe you could have it listed there.

I think Martijn makes a good point. I’m not sure “academic types” were aware of this event. On the flip side, I am sure GIScience academics and professionals have meetings (with CS overlap) where they are asking, “So where is Google?”

You are right though—we are all tackling the same geospatial (and information visualization) issues and we would do well to attend each other’s events. At the very least, we could standardize some terms (e.g. academic “choropleth” v. Google “intensity” maps). Thanks for the Google University resources link!


Your question about the missing GI Scientists and GIS research people was most interesting.

Your post contained the following statement:
“Most of the academics present were from a Computer Science departments, some specialising in privacy and policy as well as those interested in software engineering and natural language processing a subject core to Google’s success.”

Given the contact networks among academics (including GI Scientists) and other professionals, and the other comment from Martijn, I wondered if GI Science and GIS research are not seen as part of Google’s core areas related to the company’s success.

Compared to computer science, academic geography doesn’t have the number researchers and related constituencies as computer science. Is possible that GI Science was just overlooked when the faculty summit was planned? This may not be the fault of GI Scientists who are less likely to be in the Google contact network. From my experience, academia is often just as “silo-ed” as business and government, so meetings of interest may not be widely advertised or even attract certain specialists.

I agree with you that the GI Scientists need to be more broadly involved with related disciplines that share a common focus to advance GIS research.

I am working on my PhD in Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Various rankings place the Geography department quite high. Among the faculty are an author of some of the original NCGIA initiatives and NASA’s Chief Scientist. The Computer Science program at CU-Boulder is also no slouch (ranked #39 by US News & World Report).

My own dissertation research involves managing uncertainty in spatial data infrastructures which include volunteered geographic information. Most of my committee is drawn from the Geography Department. It also includes someone from the USGS (who was part of the original FGDC Metadata committee) and a faculty member from Computer Science.

Interestingly, the faculty member from Computer Science does research in databases, computer aided design and animation but he’s just learning about GIS in the process of being on my committee. Until recently, he didn’t even know where the Geography Department was on campus (hint: it’s the oldest privately funded building on the Boulder campus). Two highly ranked departments on the same campus with faculty who’s research interests should coincide more but don’t. There is basically no interaction between the two. To be fair, the ATLAS program at Boulder was supposed to provide one possible bridge and has helped, at least in the realm of human-computer interaction.

One of the problems is that GIScientists take great effort in ensuring that GIS remain a silo in Geography. To make matters worse, many Geography departments take a very critical view of Computer Science (and Engineering in general). You won’t win brownie points with a Marxist Critical Geographer Department Chair by working on a DARPA grant with someone from across campus. Mostly speaking from my experiences as software developer, Computer Scientists also tend to be solipsists, commonly suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. They’d rather reinvent the wheel than step foot in a foreign depart. So you have two insular communities that prefer to maintain their insularity.

But that’s just the divisions between Geography and Computer Science. You are also asking about the division between academic GIScience and Google, which is even more expansive. Google has made enormous contributions to Computer Science and has done a great job of exposing those advances to the academic community. At the same time, Google has absolutely revolutionized cartography and GIS. But Google is seen as an impenetrable black box by the academic GIS community. It’s this opacity that makes the critical geographers cringe. Sure, Google gives away awesome levels of geo-computation and I don’t want to downplay the efforts that you, Mano Marks and Kailen Wright have made – but it’s what’s happening behind the scenes at Google that is most interesting to GIScientists like myself.

Name a Google Geo product and I’ll list off a half-dozen aspects that are ripe for publication. Especially relative to my position in the Center of Excellence for GIScence at the USGS, Google has solved (or resolved) so many of the problems that we have been and continue to struggle with. My research is supposed to inform the future National Spatial Data Infrastructure and yet so much of the future of spatial data infrastructure is being worked out in the black box.

I don’t want to be funded by Google to do my research, I want to research Google! I can even bring my own funding!

Ed – a good piece and I have to offer my apologises for not having the event listed on I will try harder to keep the events listing up to date with any event that might be of interest to academic users of GI and beyond.

I think Grady Meehan has a point about the numbers, Google probably has more people working on furthering of GI Science. There is a push to close the gap between the academic and the commercial sectors, after all, students who exit universities with GIS qualifications need to find jobs. As you know, the AGI are offering bursaries to academics who get papers accepted to the AGI Geocommunities event in September and @jeremy_morley is working hard to get the academic community more involved.

It was good to see you doing your bit and attending GISRUK 2011, it would be great to have couple of “industry” research papers at GISRUK 2012.

If you know of an event that you think should be pushed out through GoGeo, just drop me an email.

Hi All,

I really appreciate your comments, clearly Google needs to work harder to reach out to the GI Science community in academia..

However I think there is an underlying issue as I noted, in that GIS as an academic subject is in danger of becoming a purely vocational discipline, solely concerned with the application of existing tools ..

Who is going to develop the new software tools and analytical methods of the future ?


I have to disagree that GIS is in danger of becoming a vocational discipline. I agree that most people, even in Geography, want to simply apply GIS tools to existing problems because the tools work well. Simultaneously, the number of people applying GIS tools overall has grown significantly. It’s similar to the rapid growth in “GIS” that Google created with the popularity of Google Earth. All of a sudden the number of people using “GIS” software (if you include Earth in that) went from being measured in the tens- and hundreds- of thousands to the tens- and hundreds- of millions. But that didn’t mean the market for GIS software like ArcGIS was reduced. The relative “market share” of ArcGIS dropped significantly.

There are still a core group of people who self-identify as GIScientists (or spatial statisticians, or any number of other titles) who are focused on developing new analytical methodologies and computational approaches to geographic problems. An advantage of the growth in GIS as a vocation is that it creates more “day jobs” for GIS researchers.

I’m only a GIS academic in the broadest sense being interested in usability of web based Geo visualisation tools but your post and the comment about the Google ‘black box’ struck a chord. I know quite a few Geo Googlers but I’ve yet to come across any usability folk. There must be a ton of data that could be mined and lots of expertise in UX studies that could be collaborated on but the process of Geo product UX in Google in my experience is hidden – the black box. I’ve found 2 papers and they were both about mobile Geo.

I understand some of the data/experience is commercially sensitive but, just as with code, there must be a lot that could be shared to mutual benefit. Roll them out to a conference and I’ll show….

Just my 2p worth

I apologize. I didn’t subscribe to the comment feed, so I missed Ed’s last question.

Let’s take this question of GIS turning into a vocation and turn it around. Let’, instead, consider Computer Science under the same light.

Up until the 1980s, computers were generally the realm of Scientists and Engineers. The personal computer boom greatly expanded the ecosystem of computer applications. The result was the creation of many computer vocations (mom & pop computer shops, people writing software on their kitchen table, etc.). The World Wide Web produced an even greater second expansion in the late 1990s (professional eBay sellers, graphic designers, YouTube Channels, etc.). When measured as a percent of people who use computers, real Computer Scientists have dwindled down to almost zero!

The mid-2000s saw a similar expansion in the use of geospatial technology (Google Earth, Google Maps, personal navigation devices, mobile applications, etc.). Along with this growth in application was the creation of many new geospatial vocations. When measured as a percent of people who use GIS, real GIScientists have also dwindled down to almost zero!

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