Access to a world of geographic data
Jean Brodeur is making Canada an easier place to get around in—at least digitally.
“We have the responsibility to map the country in digital form,” says Jean, a senior researcher at the Centre for Topographic Information in Sherbrooke, Quebec, part of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). “But geographic information is complex, so we are also working to make sure that it’s easy for the average person to use our maps.”
Information about the geographical landscape can help people make sound decisions in a variety of sectors, such as health, land management and public safety.
It’s a question of words
A map contains information about many different features of the landscape, such as roads, hills and vegetation. Not only that, but these features can be labelled very specifically in terms not normally used.
“It is also the meaning of the words. If I use the word ‘river,’ it could mean different things, depending on the context,” says Jean.
For instance, you could call the body of water close to your house a river, but technically it may be classified as a brook, irrigation canal or—even more generic—water course. You would therefore not find it by searching for a river in a geographic database that has been programmed to recognize it as a brook. The key factor, says Jean, is to make the choice of words accessible to a wide range of users.
The issue of terminology wasn’t as critical when these maps were in paper format, since they were used by people trained to read and understand them. Now that they are available digitally and are searchable using a database, people need a simple way to find what they’re looking for.
Jean predicts that people and computers will soon start to understand each other better. “In the future, we can foresee that people will be able to make an inquiry using their own words, and systems will be able to understand the query.”
The task of using existing geographical information in a different context is complicated by the fact that there are many different types of maps, with their own particular terminology and purpose. In fact, many organizations in Canada, such as federal and provincial agencies and private companies, are producing maps digitally for different purposes. These purposes could include climate, water management, security and natural resources exploration. Factor in different languages, and finding, retrieving, accessing and using the information become much more difficult.
“Part of my job is to contribute to standardizing methodologies and vocabulary to make the sharing of geographical information easier,” says Jean. “This will make the knowledge more transferable to users anywhere in the world, which will lead to savings in time and money.”
Jean’s contribution to developing standards will help all sorts of people navigate Canada or indeed the world on the web. “The first users will be government departments. But in the end, the data is going to be used by everyone.”
Jean is working at the national and international level to establish a structured set of standards for digital geographic information. He is the Canadian representative leading the work on the North American Profile of ISO 19115:2003 Geographic information – Metadata, which is recognized worldwide in the geographic information community.
Ideas from academia
Jean has a background in geomatics, the science of handling geographic information. He earned his doctorate from the University of Laval, where he now contributes as an associate professor. He says his academic research often provides new leads to follow at his Public Service job.
“I have four doctoral students. Working with students at Laval University is challenging because we’re always thinking about new approaches, new innovations in the field. But when I’m at NRCan, I focus on how we can implement this new research to help Canadians make the best decisions, from the driver with his Global Positioning System to decision makers, politicians and chief executive officers.”