GeoIgnite is Canada’s premier national geospatial and location technology conference. Launched only two years ago, the young event made a mark for itself in its maiden attempt in 2019 when it brought together, on one platform, the who’s who of Canadian geospatial industry in both public and private sectors, and also global experts in the domain. Next year, it lived up to its theme —Leadership in the Times of Disruption — when it once again successfully managed to bring to the community together — albeit virtually — in the middle of a pandemic still unfolding. That was true leadership for an event and a team behind it so fresh and new on the block, at a time when the entire conferencing business was still coming to terms with the new normal!
Like GeoIgnite, the man who envisioned it, and put everything on the table to execute it, is young and fresh. Jonathan Murphy is always bustling with new ideas to promote and strengthen the Canadian geospatial sector. A consummate professional with a keen eye on the global technology trends and directions, and a Canadian geospatial industry insider, Murphy is on a mission — taking the Canadian geospatial story global. “Canada is where it all started if you look at Dr Roger Tomlinson. And if we want the world to take us seriously and recognize the foundation of geospatial technologies were built in Canada, we need a national platform that showcases the work we are doing on behalf of Canada and the world.”
I caught up with Murphy for a heart-to-heart conversation on geospatial industry trends, how he conceived GeoIgnite, his experience and lessons from the pandemic year, and his vision forward.
You had earlier talked about a Canadian geospatial foundation to the global digital transformation that is taking shape. What did you mean by that?
The digital disruption, or if you want to call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution taking place globally, would not be possible without the foundation of “where”. Much of the science and technology of “where” was pioneered in Canada. I call that the Canadian geospatial foundations of the digital disruption — AI, Big Data, autonomous vehicles, blockchain and much, much more. The understanding of “where” is fundamental to the surge in useful technologies enhancing the lives of everyone around the world as well as our understanding of pressing issues like climate change and the current pandemic. We can trace the importance of “where” all the way back to John Snow and the cholera epidemic of 1854 in London.
What was the idea behind launching GeoIgnite in 2019?
GIS was born in Ottawa. Much of foundations of the digital revolution we see around the globe today are based on the pioneering work of the Canadian government and industry right here at home. Ottawa has been home to pioneers like Dr Roger Tomlinson and Lawrence Morley. So, it was but natural that we have a world-class conference here showcasing the advancements made by the Canadian geospatial industry — both government and private sector.
The idea for the conference came in 2018 when I was doing some contract communication work with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and part of that was a review of their strategic coms plan for the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation (CCMEO). I saw that they wanted to work with industry to promote and enhance the geospatial sector in Canada. At that point I had been to a lot of conferences across the country in the geospatial and tech sector to realise we needed a national Geospatial leadership conference in Canada — one that could bring both public and private sector leaders together in our community. I pitched the idea to NRCan and they agreed that a national conference was a good idea. With that tacit support I then began to float the idea with our private sector contacts and non-profits GoGeomatics had good relationships with.
In the fall of 2018, I held a special GoGeomatics meetup meeting in Ottawa to pitch the framework for a conference to the local community. I knew that to have a viable event we needed support from a broad swath of the community. After testing the waters and travelling around Canada in the fall of 2018 for GoGeomatics meetups, I pitched the idea to everyone. I formed a committee of like-minded individuals from industry, government, NGOs and educational community. It was during this phase the committee as a group came up with the GeoIgnite name.
Canada needed a premier event of high quality to showcase all our efforts here at home and to act as a door for the world to come and see what we are doing. I am pleased to say that we have done that. We created a leadership platform for businesses and the government where they can share and discuss ideas, and foster new collaborations.
What were the challenges in hosting the event in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic and when the world was just crawling out of the lockdowns?
The challenges were great and too many. After the success of the July 2019 conference, we had plans to double the event in size and scope for the next year. During the planning stage in December-January, I was diagnosed with a spinal tumour that was either going to kill me or make me a paraplegic. So, I went from being very excited about planning the next conference to quickly moving to life changing surgery. I had to place the planning in the hands of the committee and our event coordinator to focus on my health. This was in late January 2020, and by the time I was recuperating, COVID had struck. We watched in horror as it hit Italy. Events started to close; travels were getting cancelled. I was able to attend an OGC meeting in Ottawa on March 1st, 2020 before Canada went into a total lockdown.
At this point we called a pause on the conference; I think this was May 2020. How bad was COVID? How soon are we going to go back to some kind of normalcy? Would we be able to do it in the summer or the fall of 2020? We only had questions, and no answers. By May we had decided to go for a virtual conference in July. It was a scramble to flip a real-world event into an online event. And none of us within the team had any experience doing that. Some exhibitors pulled out, but most stayed with us as we moved forward. I will always be grateful to them for their trust. We were scared, but our backs were to the wall, so forward was the only way to go.
How difficult was the shift to virtual?
Like I said, we manage to retain most of our sponsors and exhibitors, and moved to the virtual format. What I learned is that the marketing for a virtual event is mostly the same as the real world — timelines change but the marketing is still all digital. Our sponsors had already budgeted for event, and now no longer had to pay for the travels. So, money was not an issue. The issue was many could not really picture a full-fledged virtual event at that point. And it was the Wild West in terms of the services offering form online conference providers — they were very expensive.
Like most things with GoGeomatics Canada, we decided to do it ourselves. We had a great event coordinator, graphic designer, relationship manager and editor — all burning midnight oil to learn the new tricks to get the work done. We were lucky that the conference software we were already using had an integration for Zoom and we had started doing Zoom events before the pandemic. These are small things but helped us tremendously on the learning curve.
GeoIgnite was a team effort from the very start. It takes a lot of people working in tandem to make a great event. The online event was no different. We have the same team for 2021.
What were the major lessons learnt in 2020 viz a viz hosting a virtual event?
First and foremost, you can’t replace the in-person networking of a real event online — no matter how hard you try. We planned the online conference more like a TV show with breaks. There was a mix of live and pre-recorded content providing for very polished end product. We had concurrent sessions the first time we went online in 2020, but we have dropped that for 2021. We didn’t do virtual exhibition booths in 2020, and we don’t plan to this year as well. Our exhibitors don’t want them as they don’t see them working after experiencing them at other events. I am sure it must be working in some cases, but I haven’t had a sponsor really push for that since the start of the pandemic.
The other thing that I learned is that it’s better to drop all barriers to participation and make it completely free. We had a ticket in 2020 for the industry, but I think this year will be singular opportunity for us to make the entire event free for everyone and let the whole Canadian geospatial sector participate. Once we beat COVID, people might not be so willing to do online events at a national level like this. I am not sure, but I wanted to open it up as far as possible and create this incredible moment where everyone in the Canadian geospatial and tech sector to at least get an opportunity to come together online.
We use Slack for our networking. The costs of the event are being supported by our sponsors and presenting partners. We have also made the conference completely bilingual with live translation. It is an exciting moment in the history of the Canadian geospatial sector, and I am excited that we can make that happen.
What is the theme of GeoIgnite 2021 and what are the major focus points?
The theme of GeoIgnite 2021 is Leadership and Geospatial Intelligence. There are so many private and public sector organisations who wanted to participate, so we have added a third day to the conference. We also have a full week of workshops, forums, training and mini events the week after the conference. There are more than 21 speakers and three panels in the main conference, and 18 workshops, trainings, meetings, summits, and forums spread over the workshop week.
Special Events within the conference include but not limited to:
- Keynotes from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), MDA and the World Geospatial Industry Council and the CTO of MAXAR.
- Canadian Perspectives: The Power of Geospatial Literacy for Space, Earth Observation and Education Summit. The Keynote for this event is Professor Gordon “Oz” Osinski, Department of Earth Sciences, Director, Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, and Director, Canadian Lunar Research Network.
- Workshops on SAR imagery, Drones, Open-Source GIS, ERDAS training, and GIS Management Training and much more – all are free.
- Canadian Government updates on geospatial leadership from the federal government, provinces, and territories.
- Fireside Chat with Dr. Steve Liang Founder of SensorUp hosted by the OGC and Dr. Nadine Alameh
- Diversity Leadership Panel during the GeoIgnite Career Fair on April 14th.
- The standalone inaugural Canadian Underground infrastructure Mapping Forum chaired by Geoff Zeiss.
- A Free Career Fair on April 14th
Going forward, what are your going forward plans beyond the April event? How do you plan to keep the momentum throughout the year and in 2022?
The opportunity might be there to spin off some of the events next year, like the Canadian Underground Infrastructure mapping Forum into its own conference for 2022. We also have an interesting forum with a focus on geospatial literacy, space and geography that I am very excited about. Another big thing we want to do is create a new conference in western Canada with a focus on data, analytics and natural resources. I would like to have a conference in eastern Canada with GeoIgnite in Ottawa each year and then another event in Western Canada (Vancouver) at equal intervals. We still need a name for the new event. So, two major conferences each year that will benefit the sector.