Geography on the World Stage

The convergence of five global trends—geo-awareness, geo-enablement, geotechnologies, citizen science, and storytelling—has the potential to offer geography a world audience.
Five converging global trends may present geography with world attention that may be unprecedented in the history of the discipline. These include geo-awareness, geo-enablement, geotechnologies, citizen science, and storytelling. Each of these recent trends is transforming the audience for geography and how geography is taught, perceived, and used.

Issues central to geography are now part of the global consciousness. Everyday objects are rapidly becoming locatable, and thus able to be monitored and mapped. Many tools and data sets that were formerly used and examined only by geographers and other earth and environmental scientists are now in the hands of the general public. Citizens outside academia are becoming involved in contributing data to the scientific community. Multimedia and cloud-based GIS have greatly multiplied the attraction that maps have had for centuries to tell stories.

Five converging global trends that present geography with new global opportunities.
But despite these trends bringing opportunity to geography, is geoliteracy becoming increasingly valued?
How can educators, researchers, and practitioners seize the opportunity that these trends seem to present to actively promote geographic content knowledge, skills, and perspectives throughout education and society?


The world faces complex challenges that are global in nature but also are increasingly affecting individuals’ everyday lives. Few hours pass without the impact of seismic or weather-related hazards on human populations. Disasters resulting from these hazards affect communities, countries, and sometimes, entire continents. Changing birth rates and immigration are global issues that impact the politics and economics of nations and the social fabric of local communities. The supply of energy resources is fundamental to enable the use of technology and has been linked to standards of living and educational attainment. Epidemics and diseases affect specific segments of society and impact the entire planet in significant ways. Sustaining agriculture and fisheries is critical to food supplies. The transportation of people and products consumes massive amounts of human time and energy. Issues of water quality and quantity are fundamental to the very existence of humanity. Political instability and violence displace whole populations.
These challenges have long been some of the fundamental issues that geographers studied. Yet in the past decade, these challenges have become a part of the public consciousness. The themes that have driven geographic thinking and research have in large part become topics of everyday conversation. There is a heightened awareness that these issues affect individuals’ everyday lives, that they are serious, and that they need to be solved. There is also growing realization that they all occur somewhere, at multiple scales, with specific spatial distributions, patterns, and linkages; and with temporal and spatial components.
Societies are rapidly moving to an era where most everything in everyday life will be able to be located on a map, or “geo-enabled.” From smartphones to tablets and laptops, from webcams recording traffic or bird counts to car parking lot sensors, from orbiting Earth-imaging satellites to surface or underground sensors recording water quality, seismicity, and weather, these sensors and devices transmit a latitude–longitude signal, enabled by the coupling of GPS, smartphone towers, and Wi-Fi transmitters. As geo-enabling extends to thermostats, light switches, and appliances in ordinary homes, it contributes to “the internet of things” and “smart cities”. As these measurements become mapped within GIS and remote sensing environments, they become what Esri founder Jack Dangermond has called a “nervous system for the planet.” This geo-enablement is taking place at different rates in different areas around the world, leading to a more uniform access to technology in some areas, and increasing inequalities because of access to devices, bandwidth, and data in other areas.
Until recently, satellite imagery, digital maps, aerial photographs, 3D profiles, geodatabases, spatial statistics, and related tools, methods, and data were used largely by those in GIS and scientific fields. Today, millions of maps and satellite images are viewed hourly. Like music, graphics, office tools, and other technologies, GIS has been migrating to a cloud-based “Software as a Service” (SaaS) model. Not only have geographic tools, maps, and spatial data become instantly available, they can be downloaded, streamed, embedded, changed, and reformatted on devices from smartphones to tablets, in the field, in vehicles, in research labs, in classrooms, and just about everywhere. These digital maps are used in newscasts, web pages, videos, and news feeds, becoming among the most common type of 21st Century media. Geodatabases map and synthesize data coming in from geo-enabled devices and objects, and through these objects, the public has become extremely conscious of the value of maps in their everyday lives.
Citizen Science
The largest part of the “internet of things” sensor network is not electronic sensors, but the general public themselves. In fields such as phenology and bird monitoring, the public has been engaged for decades in contributing their own observations, but web-based GIS makes it easier for the general public to contribute data. The general public is also voluntarily and involuntarily providing information about their location through the use of cloud-based smartphone and web applications. Information being fed to cloud-based services offers to make life more efficient, comfortable, and interesting. Examples include connecting with others through fitness apps, recommending products matching a person’s purchasing history, and feeding individuals’ current speed and location to a regional real-time traffic map so that motorists can avoid snarls. Information about the location of things are of high interest to those providing Internet services. However, even more interesting to service providers are the movements of people, who make up a seven billion strong sensor network—providing information about the planet as has never been gathered before.
For centuries, maps have been valued because they provide a large amount of detail in a small amount of space, and because of their capacity for telling a story. Telling stories through maps began with describing explored lands in great detail against terra incognita. Today, geographic tools, data, and multimedia on the web expand the ability and audience for storytelling through maps. Any person with a smartphone or computer can use maps to tell his or her story.
Platforms that enable citizens to tell stories through maps include Esri Story Maps and other tools. Today’s story maps range in scale, theme, and purpose. From Napoleon’s march to this year’s hurricanes, from China’s new highways to where food originates, educators, students, researchers, and the public can create their own story maps, through the use of live web maps with text, video, audio, sketches, and photographs. Teaching about the dynamic Earth with dynamic maps seems particularly appropriate to many.
New Perspective, New Opportunities
This is not the first time when geography was afforded great opportunity. During World War II and again during the Cold War and Space Race, a heightened awareness of global affairs translated into calls for increased frequency and quantitative rigor in geography and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. However, these periods tended to be short-lived, and were accompanied by setbacks, such as the closure of many geography departments in the US.
Will the five trends occurring today be enough to generate and sustain the interest of the general public, as well as policymakers and educational administrators?
Will this enable the recognition of geography and the geographic perspective and cement geography as a fundamental, funded, respected subject throughout education and in decision making throughout society?


This post is excerpted from an article that appeared in Geography Compass 9/1 (2015).

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