Geomatics: Addressing the elephants in the room

November 13th, 2018, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

Following the successful AfricaGEO 2018 Conference in Gauteng, please allow me to share a few observations.

Teboho Maphakisa

Teboho Maphakisa

After the provisional conference programme was announced, I was excited about the various sessions relating to challenges in the geomatics profession. Despite its profound history, the geomatics profession (particularly land surveying) is becoming less popular compared to professions such as accounting, law and medicine.

Challenges such as a poor public recognition of geomatics professionals due to the inability to find relevance in society, low student enrolment at higher learning institutions, low remuneration and the poor understanding of the core expertise of geomatics professionals in general continue to make the profession vulnerable to encroachment by other professionals with no geomatics background because of technology advancements enabling anyone to provide geospatial information.

From my understanding, the sessions were meant to deal with these issues and many others and hopefully propose actions on how to address them. Instead, the talks were dominated by the same old technical talks, academic models, accreditation and registration processes and presentations of new instruments as per usual at geomatics industry events. There was not a single talk, workshop or a presentation on ethics, values, culture, communication, inclusion in the profession and the likes which are essential in any profession and impact on its relevance in society and elsewhere.

On the last day of the conference there was an open session where various issues were discussed, which I will briefly highlight.

Mentorship

Mentorship in the geomatics profession, or the lack thereof, needs to be addressed. This was briefly discussed during the closing session at the conference, but without a tangible action plan on how this will be affected.

From discussions with colleagues from other provinces, it seems to be a norm that the older generation of practitioners are simply not interested in mentoring candidates. Many graduates and candidates seek training opportunities to register as professionals and in order to secure employment. One however hears of the shocking stories of the mistreatment of candidates by practitioners who take on students and graduates mainly for tax incentives.

One of the reasons we fail to evolve, innovate and build a sustainable profession is simply because candidates are deliberately not exposed to work-based project management activities, organisational management and the business aspects of running a practice. The majority of practitioners are just concerned about the bottom line, and graduates are simply regarded as cheap labour in private practice.

In the public service too, there is an apparent sidelining of what is referred to as “special bursars”. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform initiated a special bursary programme to address the shortage of skills in geomatics. While the programme has been effective in achieving its objective, the lack of career development within the department post-registration seems to be a challenge.

Many graduates with great potential have left the department for municipalities, others to form partnerships in private practice, and others within the department pursue post-graduate qualifications outside geomatics because of the glass ceiling that seems to be placed on special bursars.

Politics, government and transformation

During a discussion in one of the sessions at the conference, one delegate alluded to the fact that on the African continent particularly, governments do not take the geomatics community seriously and went on to give reasons to substantiate the statement. I’m not aware of the situation in other African countries, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that the geomatics community in South Africa is in denial of the fact that politics is and will remain a game of numbers, and that as long as the profession remains an old boys’ club there is no way we can lobby government on any matter as a sector. I’m saying “we” because I’m also a member of the geomatics community, but the fact of the matter is that for the longest time the profession has only been serving the interests of the selected few.

Geomatics is one of the few professions that are failing to represent the demographics of the country by marginalising the youth and females, particularly those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, preventing the profession from thriving and getting recognition. Unfortunately, those in decision making structures in the profession don’t seem to think there is a problem. You just have to look at the composition of the regulatory body and the various voluntary bodies to get a sense of the diversity that exists in the profession.

Leadership and influence

Not so long ago, President Ramaphosa announced a ten-member advisory panel on land reform, and of the ten members none has a geomatics related qualification. Most have a background in legal studies and agriculture. Despite the opposing views on the land debate, what boggles the mind is that geomatics professionals are experts on land and related matters, but we struggle to find a voice in influencing policy, in government, society and elsewhere.

Last but not least, as the premier geomatics gathering of the geomatics community on the continent, as one of the conference partners, one would have expected the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform to have opened the AfricaGEO Conference on behalf of the South African Government as a way to seek recognition for the profession, but that too did not happen. Unfortunately, if you don’t take interest in politics, politics will take interest in you – which is what we are experiencing as the geomatics community at the expense of many hopeful young candidates, graduates and practitioners.

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