Further Thoughts on "The Geographic Approach"
Understanding Our World
By Jack Dangermond
At the 2007 Esri International User Conference, I described GIS and the Geographic Approach because I believe this phrase describes a concept that underlies so much of what we do in the GIS field"approaching problem solving geographically." That talk was later summarized in the Fall 2007 issue of ArcNews. In this article, I would like to further explain this theme. The geographic approach refers to using geographic science as a framework for understanding our world and applying this knowledge to solve problems and guide human behavior. Everyone who uses GIS is taking the geographic approach. The goal in defining and discussing the geographic approach is to explain why geography mattershow applying geographic science to address our common problem can lead to different outcomes.
For example, a person who tackles a problem using numbers, calculations, and probabilities reaches very different conclusions than someone who approaches the same problem using the principles of geography. When making far-reaching decisions that have a significant impact on our environment, the consequences of not taking the geographic approach can be critical.
Geography is the science of our world, describing the physical and cultural patterns and processes of our planet. This science provides humans with awareness of what's going on, predictions of what may happen, and systematic information for planning and decision making.
Geography helps us better understand various spatial phenomena and their interrelationships. For example, the relationships between climate, soils, and topographic slope can help predict agricultural productivity. These understandings can help us become more conscious and aware of the interrelatedness of our world and how our cumulative behavior is affecting the evolution of the planet.
GIS extends the power of geography by providing digital tools that abstract and organize geospatial data, model geographic processes, and visualize this data and these models with advanced computer techniques.
Applying Geographic Knowledge
GIS is helping us apply geographic knowledge to a host of challenges, ranging from making organizations more efficient to supporting location decisions that require examining many geographic factors.
For example, when selecting the route for a new highway, GIS and the geographic approach can be used to consider the physical and human factors that should guide its layout and design: the environment, existing land use, terrain, and social impacts, as well as engineering constraints and costs.
Considering all these factors can be overwhelming, particularly when trying to make complex trade-offs. This is where the use of GIS is particularly valuable.
A key method of the geographic approach involves integrating many factors on a map and interpreting their meaning in a holistic way by means of map overlay. This classical method was popularized by Ian McHarg in his book Design with Nature in the 1960s.
The advent of GIS allowed planners to replace plastic overlay maps with digital overlays that could be integrated and modeled using various quantitative spatial analysis tools. These weighted overlays combine the various factors of importance based on scientific or human judgments related to a particular decision. An example might be a map showing the relative suitability of a landscape for locating a new facility or for a particular land use.
Today, biologists use this type of approach for modeling the geography of natural habitats. Similarly, hydrologists model flooding and flood risks, sociologists model neighborhoods and social behavior, and land-use planners regularly combine these types of models to better understand how to design strategies for creating the future.
This approach is being used in many other fields: by the military for cross-country mobility; by resource planners for forest management, mining, and petroleum extraction; and by city planners in organizing and managing urban growth. It's being used in disaster preparedness planning and response to fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. This approach is helping organizations provide humanitarian assistance during famines and social conflicts. Utilities are applying the geographic approach to planning, engineering, and managing infrastructure networks, and businesses use it to select the best locations, market their products, manage territories, efficiently route vehicles, and make their business more efficient. All these applications deliver huge benefits to organizations and to the rest of us.
While there are clearly many direct benefits, the use of the geographic approach goes far beyond specific applications. It is already having profound effects on how we think about and understand the world, how we analyze and make decisions, our methods for evaluating choices, the way we educate our young people, how we communicate with others, our management style, and how we behave toward our environment.
The Road Ahead
Yet, with all that has been accomplished, this approach has only been possible for the last few decades, so the process of applying geographic knowledge to the full range of human problem solving is just beginning.
Perhaps the most challenging application will be understanding and managing global change. Our world is changing rapidly. Continuing population growth, urbanization, consumption of natural resources, climate change, and disappearing biodiversity all make for a challenging future.
What is clearly necessary is to take a new approach, one that considers not just economic and political factors but also the ecological infrastructure that underpins our life support systems.
We need to change how we live in our environment: reduce energy usage, cut CO2 emissions, protect/restore natural areas, reduce our consumption, and stop polluting.
As valuable as our individual activities are, it is clear that the world also needs a systematic and comprehensive frameworkan approach for understanding and managing human activities in the context of the environment. This approach needs to consider all the necessary factors for creating and maintaining a sustainable world.
Geographic science supported by GIS technology provides just such a powerful approach. It provides a new context for thinking and behaving and for designing and creating solutions for our futurethe geographic approach.
Evolving Technologies and Trends
Today, with the introduction of GIS Web services in open Internet environments, it is becoming easier for anyone to access and work with geospatial information. As these technologies evolve, they will facilitate broader and richer applications of geographic information and the geographic approach. The following are important market trends in the GIS industry:
GIS Is Still at Its Beginning
While it's not always obvious, we believe GIS technology is helping improve many aspects of both our human society and our interaction with the natural world.
We believe that GIS is still at its beginning. In the future, our users will build more comprehensive systems that serve not only their internal organizations but also other agencies and society in general. This will result in enormous benefits. The new Web services architectures and collaboration tools will allow users to work together in new ways and deliver more cross-cutting approaches to problem solving.
A Concluding NoteGIS Professionals Will Be Required
Despite its great success, the widespread application of the geographic approach will not happen automatically. It will require continual dedication to building and maintaining GIS infrastructure (quality databases, strong Web applications, and all the related workflows). In addition, we will need to foster open sharing of information and new forms of cooperation and collaboration.
Clearly, GIS professionals will play an important role in making this vision a reality.