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How AutoCarto Six influenced the growth of automated cartography and GIS

A retrospective of the AutoCarto Six Conference held in Ottawa 30 years ago shows that while a lot of ideas have progressed into ubiquitous technology today, there are many ideas that still show merit.

Dr. Barry Wellar, Professor Emeritus, University of Ottawa, took it upon himself to commemorate a conference he helped organize in 1983, by coordinating and creating a retrospective of the conference. Dr. Wellar used his social network to contact the original paper authors and he asked them each to write a few pages about the intent of their original paper, the impacts of their work and any conclusions. Based on my count, 37 different authors and co-authors responded to the request and provided material for the AutoCarto Six Retrospective.

Figure 1: Cover page of the AutoCarto Six Retrospective

At the 1983 conference, the keynote address at the opening session was given by Professor F.J. Ormeling, then President of the International Cartographic Association. In his address, he thanked the organizers for the honour of inviting him to speak. However, he continued “I have to confess that I hesitated before venturing to accept. It’s to some degree an act of folly for a person like myself, born before World War 1 with no practical experience in computer-assisted cartography, to address a predominantly young audience, eager to conquer the world with the computer.”

It was clear to Professor Ormeling even at the opening session, that a paradigm shift to computer-based geography was occurring and that the audience at the conference was keen to make this happen.

So what has happened since the conference and how did the conference influence the development of GIS?

Well, for starters, if you look at the authors who contributed to the retrospective, it’s almost like a who’s who of the GIS industry. There are too many important names to list, but certainly each one has left their mark on the technology and the industry in their own special way.

In his introduction to the Retrospective, Esri President Jack Dangermond says: “The diversity of all these individuals and their efforts is an example of true collaboration in science and technology, a collaboration that I believe will continue to make an enormous difference in how we see and understand our world… Considering the many challenges that we’re currently facing, of climate change, global inequality, shrinking biodiversity and dozens of other seemingly unresolvable conflicts and issues, we must, at this point in history, apply our best understanding of science, technology and design if we’re to survive as a human species and create a more sustainable world.”

The Retrospective is a good read and there are many ideas on how to continue to improve and develop GIS to meet today’s needs. As conferences go, the AutoCarto Six event was a milestone not just in the thinking behind the development and use of GIS technology, but it was a seminal experience that brought most of the best and brightest minds in the world together in Ottawa to advance the technology that we know as GIS.

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About the Author

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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