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Innovation and Opportunity: AGI Scotland Conference

A couple weeks ago I was delighted to be involved in Association of Geographic Information (AGI) Scotland’s annual professional get-together, exploring Innovation and Opportunity. Here are my reflections….

As a member of the AGI Scotland committee this is the most important day of the year for us, and the most attended event bringing together members north of the Tweed.  Naturally it was both a day of excitement to see many months’ planning come to fruition and a relief that everything ran smoothly.  In recognition of the fast-changing nature of the Geographic Information (GI) industry this year’s theme was “Innovation and Opportunity: Stepping out of the GI comfort zone”, which I feel was a timely and forward-looking concept for drawing out an exceptionally diverse range of presentations and experiences.

Just over a year ago I was shivering through the streets of Glasgow while the Beast from the East shut down the city, which was a sudden turn after what had been a wonderfully successful 2018 AGI Scotland event.  We were very lucky the snow arrived the day after the event!  So it was not without a little bit of irrational anticipation that I travelled to Stirling earlier this month for the 2019 event.  Thankfully we were rewarded with an engrossing day of thought-provoking talks at a sold-out event, and nothing more threatening than a bit of light rain.

This was the culmination of many months of hard work by an all-volunteer group who care deeply about the success and development of the GI profession in Scotland.  Together with Ben Fisher (Glasgow Caledonian University), Bruce Gittings (University of Edinburgh), Shona Nicol (Scottish Government), Abi Page (EuroGeographics), Simon Roberts (Improvement Service) and Nikki Smith (British Geological Survey) I was involved in location and venue selection, securing sponsorship for the event, coming up with themes, persuading a variety of interesting professionals to come speak, and all the logistics to be arranged to make such a large event (120 attendees) work.  Through dozens of meetings and phone calls and over 900 emails, we went from the concept of “last year’s event was great, can we do it again?” to “is anybody able to help put together the lanyards at the registration desk?”.   It’s a funny feeling for a day so long awaited to finally arrive and then be over in a matter of hours.

Though I was busy on the day of the event seeing that everything ran smoothly (especially the presentation technology!) and chairing one of the sessions, I did have the chance to see every talk and reflect on the ideas discussed.  The Deputy Chair of the Geospatial Commission, Nigel Clifford (formerly CEO of Ordnance Survey) gave the first talk of the day which naturally was of immense interest to geospatial professionals in the room.  He updated the conference on the work of the Commission, which has recently concluded a consultation which the AGI was heavily involved in.  A key theme of this, which I have little doubt was on the minds of many in the room, is skills in the GI industry – one of the biggest challenges for many organisations today.  It is clear that the Geospatial Commission are looking closely at the results of the consultation, and we look forward to further updates on their work over the coming months.  After Nigel’s talk, of equal interest but a very different topic, Dr Jasmina Lazic from the Bayes Centre impressed the audience with a presentation on the vibrant and growing Scottish space industry.  We were excited to hear that there is a spaceport coming to Sutherland with vertical launch capabilities!  This was a great example of how the GI industry is no longer confined to the world of GIS analysis but an increasingly important part of many different sectors.  Another surprising new growth area for GI is in the fast-growing voice-activated personal assistant market.  Crispin Hoult from TrueViewVisuals gave a live demo of how Alexa was performing complex geospatial tasks behind the scenes in order to answer questions and prompts.

Ryland Karlovich chairing a Keynote Session

In my view the most interesting feature of the event was that it showed how truly inseparable GI is from everyday life.  We were not in this situation a few years ago.  The diversity of talks and presenters showed that GI is having an increasingly important role to play in almost every sector of our economy and its application is being carried out by people of more varied backgrounds than ever before, which is something to be celebrated.  GIS analysts are still needed but GI in the broader sense is being applied everywhere from taxi firms’ complex routing algorithms to drone-based asset inspection.  Whilst degrees in GIS provide valuable, relevant technical skills, most people involved in GI today will not come from this background.  This means that we have a lot of thinking to do about how to ensure the right skills are available at the right time.  More people than ever can make maps thanks to technologies that have become available over the last few years, but without cartographic training they are not always the right maps.  It is so important that the special skills of GI professionals are woven into the emerging and established industries that are applying GI to new challenges.

If you are a recent graduate in GIS, IT, Remote Sensing or a related area the great news for you is that this means the opportunities available are far broader than what they used to be; your skills will be valued in many settings that are not typically GI destinations, and your viewpoints can help solve problems that are unlike traditional GIS challenges.  As professionals in or around GI, we have a key stake in ensuring these skills flourish and young people choose to enter our industry.  A joint session at the end of the day by Mayuko Morgan (Bell Ingram) Iain Paton (Improvement Service) and Addy Pope (Esri UK) underlined this with thoughtful discussion on initiatives to inspire the next generation, which is of high importance to the AGI.  I was pleased to see a number of university students at the event in Stirling – hopefully they have come away with new reflections on the careers they want to shape.

The Next Generation Team: Addy Pope, Mayuko Morgan, Iain Paton

After a busy day it was a pleasure to finally catch up with attendees and fellow event organisers over a pint.  It was great to see the engaged discussion going on and hear positive reviews of the day’s agenda and organisation (the catering was very popular!).  On a personal note it was a relief that it had all gone well and everyone seemed to get something out of it.  I am grateful for all of the sponsors who made the event possible and the rest of the event organising team who all worked so hard to make it happen.  Also a special thanks goes to Caitlin Dixon of the AGI office who was instrumental in many of the logistics and communications, and finally Informed Solutions for supporting my involvement on the AGI Scotland committee and event team over the past two years.  I’m looking forward to a few quiet months now, then we will be gearing up for another AGI Scotland conference in 2020!

Ryland Karlovich, Technical Consultant

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