Should we replace the word "Geomatics"?

Taking into account the results of a recent survey, carried out by the Board of the Geomatics Professional Group (GPGB) of the RICS, Brian Coutts follows the evolution of the word "Geomatics" and argues that the time has come to consider a change.

This word has returned to show its "ugly" head. The Board of the group of professionals of Geomatics (GPGB) of the RICS, as we said, recently conducted a survey on the use of the word "Geomatics" to describe what used to be, in its institution, the division of Topography and Hydrography (LHSD) . Gordon Johnston, President of the aforementioned institution, recently reported that "insufficient responses have been received to move the issue forward". Therefore, it seems that, at least for some, there continues to be such a degree of antipathy toward the term that it could be considered a change. Geomatics has been a controversial term since its introduction in 1998, and it has remained that way.

Jon Maynard reported that, in 1998, only the 13% of the Land and Hydrography Division voted in favor of the proposal to change the name to the Geomatics Faculty, and, of that 13%, 113 supported the proposal and 93 opposed . If we extrapolate those numbers it follows that, at that time, there were about 1585 members in the LHSD. The figures given make 7,1% of members in favor and 5,9% against, that is, a margin of 1,2% of the total membership! Clearly it is not what could be called a decisive vote, nor a mandate for change, especially when it is considered that the 87% did not express any opinion.

Where did the term Geomatics originate?

It is often assumed that the term came from Canada and spread rapidly in Australia and later in the United Kingdom. The debate that resulted, in Great Britain, about the proposal of change in the names of the surveying courses both in the universities and in the division of the RICS in order to incorporate the new term, became questionable at that time, and It makes interesting the reading in the annals of what was then the world of topography. Stephen Booth's call for "... more promotion of what Geomatics means ..." seems to have passed unattended in 2011.

While there is anecdotal evidence that the word of Geomatics was used since as early as 1960, it is generally accepted that the term (geomatique in the original French of which geomatics is the English translation) was first used in a scientific paper in 1975 by Bernard Dubuisson, a French geodesta and photogrammetrist (Gagnon and Coleman, 1990). It has been recorded that the word had been accepted by the International Committee of the French language in 1977 as a neologism. Therefore, not only did it exist in 1975, but it also had a meaning! Although not explicitly defined by Dubuisson, its meaning is described in his book as related to geographic location and computation.

At that time the term did not have the expected acceptance. It was not until Michel Paradis, a surveyor from Quebec, picked up the term, which began to be used more extensively. Laval University brought the term to academic use at 1986 with the introduction of a degree program in Geomatics (Gagnon and Coleman, 1990). From Quebec it was extended to the University of New Brunswick, and then to all of Canada. The bilingual nature of Canada was probably an important factor for its adoption and extension in that country.

Why change?

It is thus surprising that the older members of the topographical profession, when the term "Geomatics" was introduced in Britain, argued that it could be adopted and defined so that those who chose it could adapt it to their own needs. The reasons given for the need for change were, first of all, to improve the image of the topography by making it sound more modern, with a larger market and the adoption of new technologies in development. Secondly (and possibly, in fact, the most important) to improve the attractiveness of the profession to future candidates of university surveying programs.

Why change again?

In retrospect, it would seem that it was an optimistic forecast. University surveying programs have generally been absorbed by engineering schools. The students, numerically speaking, have continued to decrease, or at least have remained the same, and the profession in general has not adopted the term to incorporate it in the titles of the practices nor has it inclined to be called "geomatics". Neither, apparently, the public knows what Geomatics means. The use of the word geomatics to replace the term topography, in particular the terrestrial topography, seems to have failed in all counts. In addition, the evidence suggests that the GPICS of the RICS is no longer convinced that geomatics is a term that one wishes to continue using in its title.

The research carried out by the author in 2014, and the very fact that the GPGB has considered it appropriate to raise the issue, indicates that there remains at least a residual dissatisfaction with the use of the word geomatics as a descriptor for ... something. Not for the profession, certainly, since it still seems to be widely accepted as "topography" or "topography of the earth". This is not only the case in the United Kingdom, but it is also true in Australia and even in Canada, where the life of the term began. In Australia, the word geomatics has generally fallen into disuse and has been replaced by "space science", which in itself is losing ground to a more recent and progressively ubiquitous term as "geospatial science".

In many of the Canadian provinces, the word geomatics is associated with engineering, suggesting that topography could be another branch of that discipline. This is particularly true at the University of New Brunswick, where "Geomatics Engineering" is situated alongside other branches of engineering, such as civil engineering and mechanics.

What could replace the word geomatics?

So, if the word geomatics makes its supporters unhappy, what term could replace it? One of the common factors in its unacceptability is the loss of reference to topography. If you can have geomatics engineers, could you have geomatic surveyors? Probably not, I would suggest. That would probably lead to even greater confusion.

Given the growing need and ability to precisely define the location or position of everything, both in absolute and relative terms, the word "spatial" immediately comes to mind. That is, the position or location in space. If that position in space is, then, relative to the frame of the planet, it follows that geo-space becomes a natural choice. Since the knowledge of the precisions in relation to the location is the core of the being of a land surveyor, the increasing capacity of multiple tools with diverse accuracy to provide positional data, as well as the continuous development of the applications to which such knowledge can be applied, the profession grows in importance - the profession that is that of the Geospatial Surveyor.

While the "terrestrial topography" has a long and proud history, the reference to the land has probably outlived its usefulness and relevance. The modern surveyor's skill set now allows him to apply both his tools, his experience and understanding of precision, as well as the relative accuracies of measurements from various sources to broader application areas, far beyond the traditional areas of "topography and cartography". This now needs to be recognized but maintaining the association with the traditional profession. When a qualification descriptor is required to distinguish the former terrestrial topographer from the many other activities that use topography in their titles, geospatial surveyor is the term that satisfies that need.


Booth, Stephen (2011). We found the missing link but we did not tell anyone! Geomatics World, 19, 5

Dubuisson, Bernard. (1975). Practice the Photogrammetrie et des Moyens Cartographiques derives des Ordinateurs. (KJ Dennison, Trans.). Paris: Editions Eyrolles.

Johnston, Gordon. (2016). Names, norms and competence. Geomatics World, 25, 1.

Gagnon, Pierre & Coleman, David J. (1990). Geomatics: an integrated and systematic approach to meet the needs of spatial information. Canadian Institute of Surveying and Mapping Journal, 44 (4), 6.

Maynard, Jon. (1998). Geomatics-your vote has been taken into account. Surveying World, 6, 1.

The original version of this article was published in Geomatics World November / December 2017

One Reply to "Should we replace the word" Geomatics "?"

  1. Excellent article, we can draw conclusions regarding the impact of new technology on trends on disciplines as old as civilization itself: Geography, topography and cartography.
    The important thing of this is to ensure that the terms adopted as true, are lasting in time and that ultimately reflect the characteristics of the trade or profession that describes.
    For me, the geomantic has always been a nice icing on the cake, but in the end there are words that come and go like fashion and do not last in time. I lean more towards geospatial science or simply geoscience.

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