Point of Beginning

Contributing Editor’s Note

May 22, 2001
Michael Binge
“In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.” Those words from Gertrude Stein came to mind as I drove north on Interstate 15 through the Mojave Desert toward Las Vegas to attend the 2001 ACSM Conference. Stein’s observations might tilt a bit toward poetic license in modern contemporary America as our suburbs and bedroom communities continue to expand. But it was therapeutic to trade my cyberspace dominated world for the vast, open spaces of the desert, if only for a little while.

Many of the road names on the exits I pass are very familiar. I did a lot of field work in this part of the country in a time that seems too long past. I traded my field boots, plumb bob, Silva Compass and Filson vest in for a PC Work Station some years back. This is like a field trip for me now. I attend three or four of these industry events each year. And I see many of the same faces at all of them.

I had my program pre-marked to look in on as many sessions with a focus on or interest in GIS as possible. Even in the Information Age I find there is still no substitute for talking face-to-face with people involved and immersed in one’s shared areas of interest. It often simply saves a lot of time.

I sat in the back of the room and listened at the “The Next Generation GIS/LIS Integrating Surveying Data in GIS” session. My main area of interest here was not the content of the program. What I was looking for was response from the attendees.

A large part of the job of a GIS program manager is to increase the level of participation, in my case especially among surveyors. I was encouraged by the news that all of the GIS Technology Labs were overbooked. The audience for the session was noticeably smaller than most of the others I looked in or sat in. There were only a dozen or so seated for this session. That didn’t surprise me. Answering the question “What is GIS?” has become something of a conditioned reflex. The outward appearance of this apparently low turnout might on the surface reinforce the notion that GIS still hasn’t established itself as an integral part of the mainstream in the survey community. But that didn’t turn out to be the case.

Although it wasn’t mentioned in the program, this was a showcase for ArcGIS, ESRI’s latest and greatest integrated geographic information system. As the session moderator began to demonstrate ways to introduce survey data into an existing GIS database to update and enhance the data, I had a feeling that day might be different. The first few questions from this small group indicated not only a high degree of interest, but a good bit of familiarity and even acceptance. The comments were generally intelligent, positive and polite but still a bit tentative.

The moderator patiently answered every question with some detail. But he didn’t seem convinced he was speaking to an audience of true believers. He paused. He had one slide left in the Power Point portion of his presentation. One simple question in black and white appeared on the screen: What does GIS stand for? “Who knows what GIS stands for?” the moderator asked. The room held the usual silence reserved for a well-telegraphed trick question. “GIS is an acronym for ‘Get It Surveyed,’” he said with a smile. I smiled, too. Not only is there still some open space, but even an occasional breath of fresh air.