Aaron Addison on Going Beyond Geospatial

In this conversation with Dan Reus, Aaron discusses what he means by being ‘data informed,’ and why he sees this as the key to solving many of the world’s greatest challenges. 

Editor’s Note (Jonathan Allen): Like everyone else, the pandemic took me by surprise and resulted in a lot of complicating factors that disrupted my plans for EQ over 2020-2021. This conversation is from late 2020 or early 2021. I regret not publishing the recording sooner, but I had been saving it to launch a regular podcast that never quite came together.

Aaron Addison is a leader in academic geospatial research and visualization. He’s explored the corners of the earth and is now the Managing Partner at Alia labs in St. Louis.

His focus is on what we actually do with data rather than simply accumulating it. Read on to find out what he means by being ‘data informed,’ and why he sees this as the key to solving many of the world’s greatest challenges. 

Aaron’s Definition of Geospatial

“It’s about the idea of place. The fact that something happens in one location, as opposed to another, brings value and means that we should record that information,” Aaron says. “We can then use this information whenever we are making decisions, planning or deploying resources. This could be related to anything from hurricanes to grocery stores.”

Data Informed v Data Driven

Aaron is always keen to stress to organizations he works with that they should be ‘data informed’ rather than ‘data driven.’ This, he says, will make for better choices because other variables will play a part in the decision making process. 

These could be things like available resources, budgets or even the political viability of an idea. An analogy could be adjusting the recipe of a cake to suit the tastes of those who’ll eat it, rather than sticking to a rigid formula. The result is a better solution for everyone involved.

Who Are the Real Drivers of Change?

Those who work outside the geospatial domain are the game changers, Aaron believes. They may have long standing challenges and see geospatial as a tool to help them address these. 

For them, it simply needs to work and enhance whatever they are already doing. 

“I think we’re starting to see that organizations do understand the value of geospatial, but they also understand that It’s not something that they need to focus on solely. For them, it’s a supporting player to help solve a problem they may be having in resource management, infrastructure, or design, for example,” Aaron says.

The geospatial community may find it had to accept such a supporting role, Aaron explains. This is because the implication is that it’s best to spread a thin layer of GIS around instead of piling it up onto one vertical area. 

“A Demonstrated Ability to Solve Problems”

When he’s teaching, Aaron has two key messages. One is to know when GIS is not the right tool for a job. The second is to become a good problem solver, and therefore someone he believes employers are looking for. 

Students need to go out into the real world with a demonstrated ability to solve problems. This starts with a comfortable acceptance that solutions may take time to find and be fraught with ambiguity.

Geospatial and Climate Change

Geospatial has proved climate change exists through the measurement of things like temperature, of water and of ice, Aaron believes. 

“We can now look at how we pivot from being descriptive with our geospatial data to being  more prescriptive and proactive in terms of setting policy around things that we know that are having an impact on climate change,” he says. “We need to focus on more upstream approaches.”

A Focus on St. Louis

Aaron explained how geospatial can play a crucial role in the St. Louis area. He cited the arguments around airport privatization and the building of COVID emergency treatment centers as local examples which could benefit from ‘data informed’ decision making. 

He also highlighted the increased risks of flooding from secondary rivers and how temporal data could be used to build rain maps which could enable us to understand what’s going on in real time. 

The Biggest Challenges Ahead

“Data is not knowledge. As a society, we’ve become very good at collecting data, but we’re not so good at doing something meaningful with that data,” Aaron says. There’s a real  opportunity to turn data into information and knowledge. 

It is the insights from data that make all the difference, he believes. Anybody can buy the sensors and anybody can collect the data, but not everyone can disseminate the data. This is sometimes called separating the noise from the signal. 

As we’re inundated with more and more data, getting from data to information will be one of the biggest challenges of the next 20 years.

The Future Lies in ‘Data Plus’

For Aaron Addison, accumulating data is important but knowing how to use it in correlation with a whole host of dependencies is key. 

Read more about Aaron’s journey in exploration and academia or you can contact with him at Alia Labs.