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Geographic Knowledge: Our New Infrastructure

By Jack Dangermond

Thanks in large part to the Internet, we've recently seen a fundamental change in the way GIS is delivered and used. The next 10 years will see an explosion of faster, more powerful mobile devices, and the line dividing cell phones and personal computers will fade. Mobile devices will continue to grow to support more geospatial functionality, and they will easily connect to systems around the world to use and create geographic knowledge. Democratization of data—both its widespread use and its universal creation—will result in a new kind of infrastructure: a geospatial infrastructure that powers our digital earth.

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As we move from an industrial economy to an information economy, our reliance on physical infrastructure is being supplemented by reliance on a new type of infrastructure: geographic knowledge.

As we move from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy, our reliance on physical infrastructure is being supplemented by reliance on knowledge infrastructure, of which geographic knowledge will form a key component.

At the 2010 Esri International User Conference, keynote speaker Richard Saul Wurman stated that "Understanding precedes action." Geographic knowledge represents our best opportunity to understand the world around us, and this geographic knowledge drives human action. Leveraging this knowledge can make a huge difference in our daily lives; it not only guides business and government but also helps us create a more sustainable world.

What Is Geographic Knowledge?

Geographic knowledge—collected information describing the natural and human environment on earth—includes

Geographic knowledge is already changing how we abstract our world. It is also changing how we reason, both in the professional world and in broader society, by introducing spatially integrated thinking. It lets people more easily visualize and think about cause-and-effect relationships.

Shared geographic databases, in concert with geospatial data viewers, such as Google Maps and Bing Maps, are also changing how we organize and communicate within and between agencies and organizations. Looking beyond the maps, people are doing more spatially integrated thinking, introducing a whole new approach for problem solving. And this is just the beginning. We're in the midst of a geospatial revolution, and this framework will come to embrace all types of knowledge and ultimately achieve a societal infrastructure for human behavior and social action.

Building the Infrastructure

GIS is the technology we rely on to build, operate, and maintain components of the emerging geographic knowledge infrastructure—spatial databases, maps, models, etc. Emerging Web environments provide new ways to make geographic knowledge accessible by non-GIS audiences. As location becomes a core component of more applications we use every day, our dependence on this knowledge infrastructure will increase exponentially, and that puts an increased level of responsibility on the geospatial professionals who build, operate, and maintain this infrastructure.

The first 40 years in GIS have been all about measuring, analyzing, modeling, and managing geographic information. The next major step will be to use all this geographic knowledge as a foundation for designing our future.

Using the Infrastructure

Infrastructure is very basic and universal to the way we live, but it is often overlooked or almost invisible because it is taken for granted. A lot of us are committed to build, operate, and maintain this infrastructure, but these activities pale in comparison to the actual use of the infrastructure. When you flip a light switch, the light comes on—you don't need to know the complexities of how the electricity was created and transmitted to your house. And that's where we are heading with this geographic knowledge infrastructure. Leveraging this all—encompassing infrastructure will expand our understanding of the physical and cultural dynamics that shape our world and help us devise action plans for a more sustainable future.

Once this infrastructure is in place, it will support a myriad of applications and activities. One of the most intriguing and exciting applications is GeoDesign—a set of GIS-based methods and tools that allow users to easily sketch out alternative designs and quickly consider the consequences of these alternatives. GeoDesign is about creating a sustainable future, guided by geographic knowledge. By making geography and the concepts of GeoDesign more widely available, people will be more likely to make decisions guided by geographic knowledge.

GIS has traditionally been very focused on analysis and modeling, often in an attempt to predict the future—a difficult task. With GeoDesign, we move beyond trying to predict the future and toward a mindset where the future can be invented or created in a logical, scientific, and purposeful manner. Carl Steinitz at Harvard University says that "GeoDesign is geography by design." We are moving beyond a world composed primarily of what might be considered "accidental" geography toward a more intelligent approach based on a deep understanding of the long-term consequences of our design on society and the environment.

Creating New Knowledge

Mobile and location-based technologies are fundamentally changing the way we create geographic knowledge; we're seeing the widespread embracing of crowdsourcing—geographic knowledge contributed by everyday citizens. Long the keepers of purely authoritative data, geospatial practitioners are beginning to take crowdsourced data very seriously. This gives ordinary citizens the opportunity to provide feedback directly to the government. It can significantly augment authoritative datasets at a fraction of the traditional cost. It provides extraordinary opportunities for citizen science. And it can put a large group of resources on a large project in short order.

GIS tools supporting crowdsourcing will change the way organizations collect and manage spatial data. Some of these tools are already available and give users the ability to modify geographic content within any Web mapping application and provide a venue for online communities to become active contributors to geospatial databases. Web editing makes it easy to capture ideas and observations for distributed problem solving and extend GIS editing capabilities to more people within an organization. These capabilities allow everyone—from authoritative data editors to citizens on the street—to contribute content to geospatial databases. This will enrich GIS, giving GIS practitioners new types of data to use, manage, interpret, and incorporate into their work.

Challenges Ahead

As the geographic knowledge infrastructure becomes pervasive, some of the issues we have to overcome as an industry and as a society include privacy concerns, data ownership, standards for collecting and structuring the data, and making sure we use the data in appropriate ways. These are very complex issues that we need to tackle at the same time we are trying to make everything easier and available to a much broader audience.

Building spatial data infrastructure and performing spatial analysis are difficult, complicated tasks, and they will remain so. In a way, one of our primary responsibilities as geospatial professionals is to hide the complexity. Obviously, what you expose to a GIS professional or a city planner is going to be very different from what you expose to a citizen with a cell phone. We need to determine what geographic knowledge is relevant for a given situation or a particular audience and build our applications around that knowledge.

More people using geographic knowledge will result in more highly evolved interfaces. But we must be extremely careful here. Information can so easily be taken out of context or misused. As the volume of information increases and we make it easy to access and available to more people, the opportunities for misuse increase exponentially. Even highly trained scientists can make mistakes with data. Our approach needs to be deliberate; we need to deliver the appropriate knowledge to the right people at the right time, but we also need to package it in a way that gives the best opportunity for correct use and interpretation.

Our Shared Responsibility

Over time, society will become increasingly dependent on geospatial infrastructure, much as it has become dependent on other, more traditional forms of infrastructure, such as electrical grids, rail systems, and highway networks. With this dependence will come added responsibilities for the geospatial professionals who build, operate, and maintain the infrastructure.

When technology is so universally accepted that it can be considered infrastructure, people become highly dependent on it. If your electricity was turned off for a week, how would that impact your life? If all public roads and highways were closed for a month, how would you get by? In the near future, we might add the question, How would it impact your life if you no longer had access to the world's geographic knowledge?

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