Friday, December 15, 2006

Bridges from Atlantis

From URISA 2006
It's been a while since the enjoyable URISA 2006 Caribbean GIS Conference - the third in the "series" so far. URISA's busy staff promise the Proceedings will be available soon (delays due to customs/shipping), along with follow-up activities. The conference theme - Shattering Barriers ... Building Bridges - resonated with many, I believe. The spread of the Caribbean territories, along with the high cost of transportation and telecommunications within the region, dissuades communication, collaboration and cross-fertilisation between GIS practitioners. And the building of a Regional SDI that would allow the region to better tackle common problems such as Coastal Zone Management, Disaster Response and Crime.

This isolation results in fewer initiatives by the region's countries themselves. As as one attendee shared with me later, there seems to be 'a reliance within certain countries on looking for outside funding (aid) before projects are started'. It's true. Many (not all) of the region's administrators are behind the curve when it comes to leveraging new technology. And so many countries seem to wait on impetus from outside to try GIS.

For instance, the leading institution in the Anglophone Caribbean, the CARICOM Secretariat is yet to utilise GIS as far as I know (though an interested staff did participate in the URISA 2004 Caribbean Conference). E.g. CARICOM Protocol VII (deals with Competition Policy, Consumer Protection, Dumping and Subsidies), states awareness that the 'CSME may be frustrated by anti-competitive business conduct', and so notes the need for the Community to 'establish and maintain information systems to enable enterprises and consumers to be kept informed about the operation of markets within the CSME', and includes consideration of 'geographic context'. However, the jump to GIS to deal with what is obviously a spatial matter, seems yet to be made. CARICOM Statistics and other agencies will continue to do their good work, but without taking advantage of spatial information systems. CARICOM is preparing for the Year 2010 Round of Population and Housing Censuses (of CARICOM countries). Will GIS be utilised to store and (better) analyse these spatial data?

From URISA 2006
Now there are quite a few islands of good example. Some literally, islands, like the Bahamas, USVI and the Caymans seem to have the high-level interest and support that should develop their SDIs. And the URISA conferences have showcased lots of excellent efforts in many countries. But, how can we roll these into a larger regional momentum? Well, to take the conference's theme to heart - build bridges between the bubbles of endeavour that exist. Bridges that allow the inspiration that is often sparked at events like the URISA conferences to be nurtured, critiqued, encouraged and brought to fruition.

From URISA 2006
Governor Jim Geringer of Wyoming who gave the keynote luncheon address, pointed out that different types of bridges can be built. Governor Jim shared many useful insights, and I'll take the liberty of giving my take on a few that stuck with me:
  • 'GIS is not easy to explain'. So, we (GIS people) need to explain it in different ways and to more people. Not just in technical settings. But in bars, in the media and (important) in schools.
  • 'Data leads to information, leads to knowledge, leads to understanding, leads to decisions'. GIS practitioners routinely make the leap from data to decisions - it's what we're trained to do. But the people whose support we need, need to be tuned in to the knowledge and understanding parts. So, again ... in bars, in the media and (important) in schools.
  • 'Solve problems; not sell technology'. Now, this hits the nail on the head. My little experience as a consultant ... and learning to recognise the look in the customer's eye as a gleam of interest or the glaze of boredom ... provided affirmation for me.
But about those different bridges. This blog - via the team of authors - is meant to be one. Like to build the bridge to your place in the sun? It's actually quite easy to join the team and post articles such as this one. Please let me know. And you'll be posting your own take on matters GIS in no time. And look out for the initiative to start the URISA Caribbean Chapter. Valrie Grant-Harry will be leading this - more to come.