It has often been said that Canada, unlike its southern neighbour, is a country more concerned with geography than history.
These days, however, it is the combination of history and geography into one technology that is playing a role in the development of the country and its business.
Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) businesses can overlay maps, aerial and satellite photographs with historical business information, census findings, demographic data, sales projections, marketing reports, and almost any other conceivable type of information. This can deliver a better understanding of a firm’s business performance and business models, but while the pictures presented by GIS can be both pretty and powerful they can also be problematic.
“People tend to take whatever they see on a map as truth,” explained Karl Kliparchuk, president of Terratech Mapping Services Inc. in Burnaby, B.C.
“When we sell them a solution, we also try to sell them training, because anybody can make a map and anybody can make a poor map. We teach them how to depict their data. They have to know that there are limits on the data -and what’s presentable and what isn’t. GIS makes information a lot more accessible, but also really more dangerous.
“Other mapping software can be free or inexpensive, but it might not necessarily provide the right breaks (in the business data) and thereby hide trends, which leads people to make bad business decisions.”
Bill Latchford, manager of geosolutions for Bell Canada in Mississauga, Ont., agrees that training makes a difference in how business users relate to GIS technology – even technology that has been developed in-house specifically for Bell’s use.
“It is difficult to get the users to think in terms of GIS. It is a new technology that is being brought into the business world. Its previous users were more geared to the natural resources sector.”
Bell’s experiences with user acceptance has been somewhat hit and miss, he said. “We set people up to go to outside parties for training. Certain people see an immediate use for it certain ones do not.”
Mark Shymanski, an instructor in the civil technology department of the Red River College in Winnipeg, knows that there is definitely a business use for the technology, but also knows that before either business or IT can truly understand and appreciate it, they must know its limits and liabilities.
“When we teach GIS courses, one of the first things that we do is give the students a GPS device and tell them ‘go out and create a map.’ That way they learn about the problems created by basic isolinear mapping, and they learn that just because you’ve created some lines on a screen it is not necessarily representative of the real world. It is just part of the process that teaches them how to compensate for the errors that can exist,” Shymanski said.
The types of errors that can arise in decoding GIS information are numerous, but many of them can be ascribed to a misunderstanding of basic geographic techniques, the sudden availability of desktop GIS software, or a combination of the two.
“What has happened is the software has become user friendly,” explained Glenn Letham, a GIS analyst with Spatial Graphics in Victoria, B.C., and editor of the SpatialNews Newsletter.
“Five or six years ago, most people used high-powered Sun Unix workstations to run GIS applications, but the software today runs on PCs. Now all of the sudden with companies like Microsoft getting into the picture with the release of MapPoint 2000, which is tailored toward the small business user, what will happen is that you will start having people from all kinds of disciplines who will start calling themselves mapping specialists, but who won’t have the cartography and mapping and physics skills, and they will be using maps for things that they shouldn’t.”
Maps aren’t the only things that can present difficulties in GIS work — data can also become an issue. Its source, its accuracy, its ownership, its format and even its expense can all cause concerns.
Greg Hess, president of StrataWeb Systems Ltd. in Calgary, deals with all of those concerns. His company acts as an information portal to the oil and gas industry. StrataWeb provides the means to pull live (or almost live) data from a large number of sources, compile it, and present it in a geospatial report through a Web browser.
“The currency of the data is our biggest advantage,” Hess said. “Most organizations are distributing it via a CD…our information hits the brokers’ desks immediately. Before StrataWeb, typically the brokerage business had to put in a request for information, do a call back, describe the request…We can do it right on-line. People are learning to hit Enter instead of going to meet for a beer.”
Still, Hess explained, the data isn’t his to own.
“We just distribute the data. If we owned the data, we would become a threat to the data providers.”
Even when his intentions are good, Hess said he can’t get around some data ownership issues. For example, he said he is trying to create an emergency database and information resource for the oil and gas industry, and include in it pertinent contact information such as current phone numbers, but this has been problematic.
“The phone numbers are held by Telus, and the Freedom of Information Office says I can’t give people the phone numbers, and until something bad happens I don’t think anything will happen to change that.
Others agree that getting access to data can be both difficult and expensive, especially when governments are involved.
“It’s terrible,” said Red River College’s Shymanski. “What data they do have is excellent, but they charge a premium for it. It makes a difference to what a small GIS shop can do.”
“Canada is a little bit different than the U.S.,” explained Kliparchuk. “There a lot of it is given away by the government for free. Here you have to purchase it, and it is a little bit of a barrier.
“It is an ongoing debate in Canada and in the U.K. When you’ve already paid taxes to collect the data, you should just be charged the cost of transcribing (or formatting) it. Why should people pay twice for the same information. People think things need to change – to move to the U.S. model, and when that happens, the GIS industry will really explode.”
In addition, not all of the government data is useful to those looking to utilize it for business purposes. The federal government, in particular, tends to look at a bigger picture than Latchford finds helpful.
“The big challenge there is the large scale, 1:250,000. That means the resolution is very poor,” Latchford said. “For maintaining a utility, you need to maintain finer, more detailed maps.”
Of course there are other sources of data out there, but they often come with their own prices and problems. “There are some relatively inexpensive sources of data out there,” Kliparchuk said, “but the quality is not so good. They might be fine to do some maps from, but not to use for surveys.”
Data quality has also been a topic that Letham raised with clients during his time at Spatial Graphics. “The whole issue of meta data is a problem. People aren’t documenting it properly, and mostly it comes down to laziness. A number of solutions and standards are being proposed, but how do you force everybody to adhere to them?”
In addition to sloppy meta data practices, Letham said there is still some confusion in the industry about how to deal with older styles of maps.
In 1927 a North American datum was adopted by map makers as a standardized, mathematical way of defining the shape of the earth. In 1983 a new datum was established, and according to Letham, “there is still a lot of data based on the old datum and a lot of misunderstanding of how to change a map so it can be produced in the new datum.”
The other issue is, for the most part, GIS technology companies offer proprietary formats and programs, so communications and data exchanges between the different offerings was one of the challenges of performing GIS operations.
Bell, in fact, found the process so tedious that it created its own utility to do the data transformation and translation, a process that saves a great deal of time.
Others, such as Red River College, are working to make others deal with the problem. Shymanski explained that the college is one of the academic institutions participating in the Data Liberation Initiative (www.statcan.ca/english/Dli/contents.htm), which is working toward encouraging both format compatibility and better and cheaper access to government data for colleges and universities.
The Open GIS Architecture Movement, which is primarily an American-based initiative, also has found Canadian support since its goal is to make data sharing an easier and less complex process.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Still, despite all the difficulties inherent in the use of GIS, none of its proponents would consider abandoning the technology. Most, in fact, are looking for ways to expand its boundaries, since it can impact the capabilities of business.
At Bell Canada, the geosolutions group employs a 10-year-old utilities-specific Imap automated mapping and facilities management (AM/FM) software package that graphically tracks every individual phone service installation, plus it uses an engineers’ specific database that details all of the specs about the cabling, wiring and connectors in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
GIS helps Bell to use both more effectively. “GIS allows traditionally separate databases to come together, and come together usefully — the engineers’ database and the marketing database,” Latchford said.
Now, when marketing is looking to sell new services to customers, the sales agents can examine Bell’s existing facilities and equipment in order to determine if that service offering would be tenable in the customer’s area. If not, they can examine the profiles of neighbouring customers to determine if it would be worthwhile, for example, to install extra repeaters or ISDN hubs in a particular geographic location, and then offer the service to a wider number of clients.
Latchford added that this approach makes sense, not only because it allows Bell to make more sales and offer better customer service, it also improves its own operating efficiencies – all actions which have a positive influence on the bottom line.
In the end that is where the true strength of GIS lies, and why, in spite of its complexities, it is such an important technology for Canadians.
“GIS started here with the Canada Land Inventory (http://geogratis.cgdi.gc.ca/CLI/Frames.html),” explained Shymanski. “We’ve pioneered this industry because we have a huge country with few people and we need the tools to manage it.”