3 Apr

2014 Washington GIS Conference – Thought Leaders and Closing Session

David A. Howes, David Howes, LLC

This article was first published in the Washington URISA newsletter The Summit, Issue 35, Summer 2014 (pages 9-12) and is reproduced here with permission.

As explained in the earlier post, Background to the 2014 Washington GIS Conference – Communicating Our World, a primary goal for the 2014 Washington GIS conference was to support the theme of Communicating Our World by trying out some approaches for encouraging greater communication and networking opportunities for attendees. One of these approaches was the inclusion of theme tables at lunchtime on the first day of the conference. A larger endeavor was the establishment of what we called a “Thought Leaders” group to help gather ideas and stimulate conversations related to the conference theme, with a particular focus on the three questions that were originally asked in the Call for Papers:

  • How have you communicated the value of GIS to your organization or clients?
  • How has your use of GIS supported a communication effort?
  • How have you improved communication between participants in your GIS projects?

As well as compiling ideas from direct conversations and presentations, we also established a “Contribution Collection Station,” where attendees could record their thoughts on easel pads, rate the comments using sticky dots and discuss the points that were raised. The Thought Leaders then helped orchestrate a new closing discussion during which contributions to the conference theme were summarized and the audience was invited to elaborate on the summary. The make-up of the group and the results of the exercise are presented below. Since this was the first time we’d tried the approach, reflections on the process itself are also included and may serve to help others who wish to implement something similar at future events.

The Thought Leaders
The following individuals kindly agreed to be members of the Thought Leaders group:

Discussion Topics
As it turned out, contributions to the conference theme from the collection station, presentations and discussions often spanned more than one of the three theme questions listed above and typically related to two of them. It made sense, therefore, to frame our closing discussion in terms of general topics rather than the three questions themselves, as was originally intended.

Four general topics were identified to provide the foundation for the discussion:

  1. Standards and Best Practices
  2. GIS Turf Wars
  3. Becoming the GIS Yoda
  4. Education and Interaction

The Thought Leaders developed summary slides to introduce each topic and seed the audience participation in the closing discussion. We allowed about ten minutes of discussion time per topic and all participants were asked to state their name and organization to provide some context for their thoughts. The seed points and a brief set of responses are provided below (with the responses treated anonymously out of respect for the participants). Without the context of the full discussion, some of the points may be a little unclear, but, nevertheless, their inclusion should be helpful.

1. Standards and Best Practices
Conversation seed points from initial attendee contributions

  • Retaining/fostering institutional knowledge
    • Mentoring
    • Documenting business needs/practices
    • “Don’t do this” list
  • How do you prioritize your work?
    Importance of project management

Closing discussion responses

  • Retaining/fostering institutional knowledge
    • A mentor/mentee database would be helpful to identify/record/match
      • Mentor goals
      • Mentee goals
    • Washington now has a Women in GIS and Technology LinkedIn group, which was active at the conference, and promotes, for example, networking and personal branding (the topic of a session in the GIS Communication track)
    • User groups are valuable
  • Prioritization
    • Use the food chain approach – address the most important items first
    • Meet as a team and assign priorities, apply executive decision making
    • Ensure good communication – always ask if in doubt
    • “Duke it out” – conduct an ROI (return on investment) evaluation, use facts and data to make decisions
  • Documenting
    Adopt a wiki approach – allow partners to contribute

2. GIS Turf Wars
Conversation seed points from initial attendee contributions

  • Cease-fire?
    10 dots at the Contribution Collection Station
  • Bomb away?
    3 dots

Closing discussion responses

  • From a supporter of “bomb away” thinking: IT people tend to behave in a regulatory rather than assistive manner, GIS professionals are often told rather than asked what they need with respect to software
  • IT people seem to make users feel like they don’t know what they’re doing even after the users have been present for several decades
  • IT people tend not to be knowledgeable with respect to GIS – a combined GIS/IT degree program may be helpful (and could be in development locally)
  • Some have had a good experience with IT staff
  • From a former school teacher and IT person who taught applications: Application users tend to be IT-ignorant, IT people tend to be application-ignorant
  • It’s a matter of understanding others, e.g., IT people, from their perspective
  • Need to take time to “cross the tracks”, it’s a learning process, “walk a mile in their shoes”
  • Government departments tend to operate as silos, competing for funds – not helpful with respect to cooperation
  • From someone who has worked with CAD, IT etc. for many years: Took CAD and surveying classes, very helpful in understanding others and their needs
  • Need to move beyond simply describing turf wars and look for positive ways to resolve differences

3. Becoming the GIS Yoda
Conversation seed points from initial attendee contributions

  • What does it mean?
  • What should they do?
    • Educate others about GIS
    • Avoid esoteric GIS jargon
    • Create metadata and documentation
    • Facilitate interagency cooperation

Closing discussion responses

  • What is meant by “yoda”? The master, teacher
  • Yoda translates knowledge, helps get past struggles
  • Need to keep language simple enough so people understand one another
  • Help get people over difficult hurdles
  • “GIS therapy:”
    • Ask participants in a project what’s the most important thing for them and listen carefully
    • Consider time, image and cost in assessing suitable responses (from Don Barden’s book The Perfect Plan, referred to in the Keys to Independent GIS Consulting session)
  • From a 911 manager who’s visited all 39 counties: continually looking for “yoda” skills in local offices
  • Maps are very helpful in creating “a-ha” moments, people quickly see their value

4. Education and Interaction
Conversation seed points from initial attendee contributions

  • What GIS-related skills are
    • Well addressed in education?
    • Not well addressed in education?
  • How do you replicate/build on the value of conferences within your organization?
  • How can we enhance communication with/between executives and elected officials?

Closing discussion responses

  • Need to increase appreciation for skills that aren’t technical in nature
  • From a part-time GIS analyst:
    • See IT needs in a lot of GIS job descriptions
    • Feel unqualified because many jobs are increasingly becoming IT-/web-based
    • May be a problem for “middle-agers”
  • From a certificate program student:
    • Most jobs require a bachelor-level degree
    • It would be helpful if GIS hirers would communicate with Human Resources departments to explain what’s really required, which may help them realize the value of certificate programs
    • In general, industry can help by documenting what is required of GIS professionals
  • URISA is working on promoting the value of certificate programs at the national level and developing educational standards
  • A GIS career demands lifelong learning – instead of “conferences,” it may be better to refer to events as “symposiums” or something that expresses “learning opportunities” (i.e., professional development), may be more acceptable to those providing funds for attendance
  • Become a GIS evangelist
  • Expand on the GIS “fan base,” introduce GIS to a broader audience, explain GIS for non-GIS people (e.g., class at Central Washington University)
  • From a GIS educator:
    • Talk to non-GIS professionals and get them excited about the technology and how they can use it
    • Create vertical career opportunities
  • GIS by itself is not necessarily very useful, need to integrate with domain-specific teaching
  • There is no single “vanilla” GIS flavor, need to accept diversity
  • At San Diego State University, GIS professionals served as course advisors and presented on topics such as how to find a GIS job
  • GIS should be a standard class in K-12 programs
  • Leverage the holistic nature of GIS

An important goal for the closing discussion was to develop a set of deliverables in the form of short statements that, ideally, summarized key positive points from the conference conversation on communication and would serve as a basis for positive action within the GIS community. The following statements were identified with support from the attendees:

  • Walk a mile in their shoes
  • Create an inspiring teachable moment
  • Be a mentor to the education community

If everyone who attended the discussion or reads this entry were to take steps based on one of these statements, our GIS community would benefit significantly. The statements also provide a basis for ongoing interactions to consider how well our efforts are working and how we can expand the set to include other positive intentions. Ideally, this will extend the spirit of the conference well beyond the closing discussion and make a strong and positive difference for everyone involved.

Reflections on the Process
In general, the Thought Leaders idea seemed to work reasonably well, especially for a first attempt. As always, there is room for improvement and the following comments may be helpful to anyone wishing to extend and develop the approach.

  • After a slow start, the amount of activity at the Contribution Collection Station grew rapidly. For a two-day event, however, an earlier push for contributions may help to maximize the value of the approach.
  • It would have been valuable to have included greater involvement by the Thought Leaders themselves in the closing discussion. We were keen to encourage as much audience participation as possible, but the discussion might have benefited from their comments.
  • Generating audience interaction was slightly difficult to begin with and it was a little awkward having to choose someone to start the discussion, but it wasn’t long before we had a healthy conversation under way.
  • From the post-conference survey responses, some appreciated the Thought Leaders concept and enjoyed the closing discussion and some were ambivalent, although the general response seemed to be favorable.

As with all other aspects of the conference, this was entirely a volunteer-led activity and we are grateful to those who complimented us on our activity and provided help. Any suggestions for improving this sort of activity are most welcome, but please be prepared to help us develop better ideas and enhance the overall experience for you and your fellow GIS professionals accordingly. Your contribution will be appreciated.