Is There Confusion in Geospatial Terminology?

June 19, 2014 Gordon Plunkett

A career as a geospatial practitioner leads one to learn about, understand and use a number of technical terms that are either unique to geomatics or are borrowed from related technical disciplines. However, some terms are used extensively in geospatial dialogues often when there may be no common understanding of the meaning of the term.

Recently, I attended a national workshop that was attended by experts from across Canada and the attendees represented a broad cross section of the geomatics community. The workshop was very valuable in helping to move the Canadian geomatics community towards a common vision and plan for the future. While the results from the workshop were beneficial, the workshop needed to pause several times during deliberations to ensure there was a common understanding of some terms.

Among the misunderstood terms were the usual suspects: “data” and “information”. These terms are used daily and there is even little agreement on whether these terms are singular or plural. The commonly recognized difference between the two terms is generally that data is the lowest or raw form, while information results from the aggregation or the processing of data or other information.

Another set of terms that were discussed in detail were “geospatial” and “geomatics”. Geomatics is a term that was minted in Canada to cover all the aspects of earth measurement, analysis and interpretation. At the workshop, it was indicated that the term “geomatics” is not used or understood outside of Canada. However, a short video was shown where members of the general public were randomly asked what the term geomatics means. Turns out the Canadian general public doesn’t know what geomatics means either! Apparently the rest of the world uses geospatial, but I’m not so sure if you randomly asked the general public, they would know the term geospatial either.

Another pair of terms that received attention was “sector” and “community”.  So what is the difference between the Geomatics Sector and the Geomatics Community?  Well the results of this discussion were far less clear-cut. It seems that for workshop work, the sector is the business side and the community is anyone who’s interested.

During the data discussion there seemed to be a misunderstanding of the different roles of a data steward and a data custodian. With the subsequent discussions but without unanimous consent, it was determined that a data custodian was someone who was just in possession of the data, or someone who looked after the data, kind of like a school custodian. On the other hand, a data steward was someone who was in possession of the data, but who also manages the data and may rearrange or change it if necessary. While the distinction is subtle, it’s important to know the difference for data provenance reasons. For example, the Esri Canada Community Maps Program receives data from data producers, data stewards and data custodians.

So did the workshop get mired down in vocabulary or was it a success despite uncertainty in terms? Well it was a success, lots of objectives and actions were developed along with a vision for the future. However, when there is a diverse group of experts from many geographic locations, it’s important to make sure there is a common understanding of terms. In the geomatics business there are many imprecise terms and it’s imperative for practitioners to understand the subtle differences in similar jargon.

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About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

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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