Meetups, MOOCs, and Hackers, Oh My!

As a community of users and programs, we are constantly searching for ways to broaden and expand the use of GIS/geospatial technologies in our areas of influence.  While I’ve written previously in eSpatiallyNewYork about the NYS geospatial community’s need to expand outreach in professional circles and disciplines (engineering, public works, health industries, retail, etc.), there is a large and increasing number of GIS/geospatial individuals,  or even companies for that matter, who are not necessarily aligned with the traditional “GIS community”.  Or at least the traditional community of users which we have come to recognize and know over the past two decades.

This is a new and evolving community of geospatial users very different from the first generation of GIS/geospatial users which came together in the 80s/90s representing government and government contractors to create the initial statewide organizational framework (i.e., annual conferences, regional GIS user group meetings, NYS Coordinating Body, etc).  For years, the act of collaborating and communicating the geospatial message required attending meetings and conferences.   You had to be there.  It was the only venue there was.

But as we know now, the internet has fundamentally changed all of this and at the same time has dramatically increased the number of geospatial users and consumers. Individuals joining our space from many different angles and reasons such as starting a mid-life career change, engaging as a community activist,  Millennial generation programmers leveraging  public domain geospatial datasets to build mobile/smartphone applications, or the many simply participating in internet-based continuing education programs.   Connecting virtually and joining the geospatial fray via social media, MindMixer, blogs, hackathons, code sharing, and the many other available online user forums. Even through LinkedIn.

One online venue growing in popularity and offering geospatial enthusiasts the opportunity to interact, exchange ideas, collaborate, and to meet, is Meetup.com. There are Meetup groups for nearly everything imaginable, but just in the metropolitan New York City area alone, there are several “geo” groups with combined memberships already well into the thousands.   One group I’ve joined (GeoNYC) now has over 1,000 members.  A thousand! Some other groups in the metropolitan area include NYC Open Data (1,800 members), Crisismappers NYC (140+ members), and GeoDev NYC (which is essentially supported by ESRI) with 600+ members.  There also Meetup groups for OpenStreetMap NYC , Maptime NYC, and nyhacker (2,600+ members).  The New York Big Data Workshop group has had 384 members join just since February of this year.  Granted many individuals are probably members of multiple groups and not all of these groups are totally focused on GIS/geospatial, but the numbers are still pretty impressive.   It’s definitely a new culture of collaboration and working together – and I doubt many of the “geo” Meetup.com Nation have attend or participate in either of the two major statewide GIS conferences (NYS Annual Conference and NYS Geospatial Summit).    (The last time I was at a Meetup I overheard a conversation between two individuals communicating solely by their screen names!)

Conceptually similar, though phenomenally different, consider the  thousands of individuals now chasing and taking part in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).  For example, one of the more visible and successful MOOCs was the 5-week MOOC, Maps and the Geospatial Revolution, taught Summer 2013 by Dr. Anthony Robinson of Penn State. Dr. Robinson was the keynote at the Spring 2014 Annual GIS-SIG meeting held in Pittsford, New York.   Over 47,000 students enrolled – of which according to Dr. Robinson 1,068 were from New York State – and over 35,000 students participated, making it the largest GIS course ever taught. (Wonder how many of the 1,068 registered are members of the NYGIS Association?) The same MOOC course is currently being offered and is in session now. Here in Westchester County, Dr. Peggy Minnis at Pace University offered a MOOC entitled “GIS 101” during Spring 2013 semester which led to 810 individuals registering for the course.  Dr. Minnis noted that about 150 of the 810 never logged in while another 150 worked fairly regularly through the weekly assignments. The latter group became the core of the active learners.  (And a follow-up course “GIS Basics” was offered Fall 2013).    All said, there is no denying the increasing MOOC appeal as a means to presenting basic geospatial concepts to a new and broader user community.  As to the overall benefits and relevance of MOOC coursework,  reference is made to a January 2013 Journal of Higher Education article noting “Course certification rates are misleading and counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses”.    (I just saw another MOOC listing in a June 5th Directions Magazine Blog posting:  New MOOC in Beta: Introduction to GIS using Quantum GIS.

And lastly, are our hacker friends.  There are hackers of all types but here I’m referencing the geospatial types.  The new friends of GIS with an edge and attitude.   One does not have to try too hard to find the growing list of GIS and open data related hackathons including, but not limited to, the  ESRI UC Hackathon, Hack Pasedena, City of Austin Hack for Change, Code for Burlington , Colorado/Wyoming Google Hackathon,  NYC BigApps 2014, opendataphilly,  ourimportant and closely aligned disciplines in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry (AEC), and many more.   Any other Google search on “geohacker applications” or “geospatial hacker apps” will return yet another long list of specific applications and authors.  Take a look.   A completely different, and often awesome, ad hoc approach to geospatial application development.  Hard to quantify the numbers but they are there.   Maybe in the cubicle/office pod next to you or in the basement next door.  And what do they do?  Maybe best defined from the  Hacker wiki:

  • Hacker:  those who make innovative customizations or combinations of retail electronic and computer equipment
  • Hacker:  those who combine excellence, playfulness, cleverness and exploration in performed activities

There is a whole new and expanding community of geospatial users amongst us and it’s my guess we’re only beginning to scratch the surface on identifying and understanding who they are and how to make a connection.   The big challenge is realizing that many of the new breed are ones using geospatial on the fringe, innocuously, and not necessarily in establish groups or programs.  Probably solo on the internet, sometimes just a screen name, developing and sharing – and then leaving.  GIS rogue.  But at the end of the day new and refreshing.  And contributing to the common geospatial good.

There are lots of individuals engaged in these new spaces and the Empire State GIS community would do well to take note.

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