Wednesday, 30 November 2011

How do we balance supporting novice spatial users alongside experts? Or, is geospatial analysis necessarily GIS?

The task for table 5 at the #jiscGEO breakout discussion was to come up with a recommendation about how to balance the needs of newcomers to geospatial analysis with those of ‘experts’ in using Geographical Information Systems (GIS). To have greatest impact and value for the community, there was general agreement that any strategy should address the needs of the subject specialist user community. This means exploring how the technology can be made to work for the user, rather than necessarily ‘up skilling’ the user to become a technical expert (say, in GIS).

By focusing simply on technology training, there is the danger that, as well as being seen as irrelevant, too difficult or simply just boring for users (academics or students), the data gets overlooked or is made to fit a ‘system’ of analysis. For example, one problem of using GIS in humanities is the issue of ‘fuzzy’ data. This isn’t just a case of the system failing to cope with fuzziness: it also betrays an underlying assumption that data can, and should be, disambiguated and clear. For humanists, however, the questions driving research are often precisely those that look to nuance or complicate the material. We like messy results. Humanists need worry less about producing an accurate and/or truthful representation and more about how maps can be used as entry points to explore the data—this is seeing maps as part of the investigative process rather than as an end in and of themselves.

Ideally, then, users should be involved in the development, enrichment and adaptation of geospatial technologies, to make those tools work for them. Therefore, we recommend that JISC should build on their contacts within the HE sector to have teams of subject specialist users (i.e. the successful projects) go into universities, where this is already a JISC presence to help co-ordination, to show the target group the kinds of geospatial technologies that can be used and get them involved in shaping these tools for the future—the ‘show and tell’ unconference rolled out across the sector, as it were.

Elton, Nicola, Rasmus, Claire, Ryan, Addy

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