Proving Tobler’s Law

In the last year, the world has run up against a hard truth that geographers have known all along—the world is a very interconnected place. As Waldo Tobler’s First Law of Geography states: “Everything is related to everything else. But near things are more related than distant things.” This has been demonstrated vividly as disruptions, decisions, and events in one location have caused repercussions that are perhaps most acutely felt locally but are often palpable regionally and sometimes internationally. The effects of individual decisions can extend far beyond our immediate circle and can ripple across our communities and nation.

GIS is a particularly adept tool for letting us visualize and measure just how much our fates are tied to each other and the natural world. Researchers for The Nature Conservancy developed a GIS tool for examining biodiversity, the movement of species, and the health of landscapes. They found that areas resilient to climate change formed an interconnected web. This finding is leading to a shift in the paradigm of large landscape conservation.

Similarly, mobile GIS apps supported on the cloud are tracking raptor populations. These birds are valuable indicators of environmental health that warn when vital earth support systems are threatened. The African Raptor Databank (ARDB) was developed to track the well-being of eagles, hawks, vultures, and other birds of prey.

GIS lets us also see where change is needed by identifying threats to societal well-being. The pandemic and accompanying social unrest of the last year has highlighted threats to basic needs such as food and shelter and obstacles that limit opportunities for education and employment. Through viewing these challenges in all their complexity using GIS, we can better understand how to work together to improve these situations, whether it is delivering food to neighbors more efficiently or providing more equitable access to broadband internet to make sure students don’t fall behind in their schoolwork.

About the author

Monica Pratt

Monica Pratt is the founding and current editor of ArcUser magazine, the executive editor of ArcNews magazine, the editor of Esri Globe and head of the Publications team at Esri. She has been writing on technology topics, specializing in GIS, for more than 25 years. Before joining Esri in 1997, she worked for newspapers and in the financial industry.